Transhumanists are surely futurists... And yet, their ideas, their motivations, do not come from nowhere. They have deep roots, perhaps surprising roots, and following those intellectual trails... we’re led back, not to rationalism, but to a particular strand of religious apocalyptic thinking that’s been a persistent feature of Western thought... Transhumanism is an ideology, a movement, or a belief system... The idea of transhumanism is associated with three predicted technological advances. The first is a vision of a radical nanotechnology as sketched by K. Eric Drexler, in which matter is effectively digitised... the route to the end of scarcity, and complete control over the material world. The second is a conviction -- most vocally expounded by Aubrey de Grey -- that it will shortly be possible to radically extend human lifespans, in effect eliminating ageing and death. The third is the belief that the exponential growth in computer power implied by Moore’s law, to be continued and accelerated through the arrival of advanced nanotechnology, makes the arrival of super-human level artificial intelligence both inevitable and imminent. I am sceptical about all three claims on technical grounds... But here I want to focus, not on technology, but on cultural history. What is the origin of these ideas... The connection between singularitarian ideas and religious eschatology is brilliantly captured in the phrase... “Rapture of the Nerds” ... A thoughtful transhumanist might well ask, what is the problem if an idea has origins in religious thought? ... The problem is that mixed up with those good ideas were some very bad and pernicious ones, and people who are ignorant of the history of ideas are ill-equipped to distinguish good from bad. One particular vice of some religious patterns of thought that has slipped into transhumanism, for example, is wishful thinking... If you think that a technology for resurrecting dead people is within sight, we need to see the evidence. But we need to judge actually existing technologies rather than dubious extrapolations... This leads me to what I think is the most pernicious consequence of the apocalyptic and millennial origins of transhumanism, which is its association with technological determinism. The idea that history is destiny has proved to be an extremely bad one, and I don’t think the idea that technology is destiny will necessarily work out that well either. I do believe in progress... But I don’t think... [it] is inevitable. I don’t think... progress... is irreversible, either, given the problems, like climate change and resource shortages... I think people who believe that further technological progress is inevitable actually make it less likely.I do not doubt that many singularitarians and transhumanists will declare Jones' concluding verdict false, insist that they think positive futures are far from inevitable, and explain that the whole point of their membership organizations is to facilitate better outcomes. This is why they devote so much of their energy to existential risk discourse and coding friendly AI and so on. Quite apart from the curious fact that so much of this "organized activity" amounts to titillating collective rituals in soft-porn techno-terror and techno-paradise navel-gazing, I daresay Jones would point out that the "concrete concerns" of superlative futurology with mind-uploads, desktop drexler boxes, superintelligent code, robot and clone armies, various runaway goos provide the figurative furniture (in what sense are any of these concerns really "concrete" at all?) rendering more real, more necessary, more intuitive, more natural the deeper assumptions and aspirations and conceits fueling their futurological faith. Ultimately, what futurologists deem and need to preserve as "inevitable" is the gesture of a repudiation of the open futurity inhering in the diversity of stakeholders to the present through the projection of and identification with parochial incumbencies denominated The Future. The specificities of the techno-transcendental catechism, whatever they may be from futurist to futurist, proceed from there.
Using Technology to Deepen Democracy, Using Democracy to Ensure Technology Benefits Us All
Monday, August 25, 2014
Richard Jones Critiques Transhumanism
Richard Jones has been a sympathetic critic of superlative futurology for years, and his training and research makes him the rare scientist who can engage transhumanists in the "technical debates" they cherish. Most who are qualified to indulge in these debates either don't take the transhumanists seriously enough to give them the time of day and almost all the rest are already True Believers whose science was acquired and is selectively filtered in the service of their futurological faith. Richard Jones (like Athena Andreadis and a handful of others) can marshal devastating scientific critiques of techno-transcendental pretensions, but crucially remain intrigued enough by the social and cultural dimensions of futurological discourses and subcultures to remain engaged with them. Jones has recently offered the beginnings (he promises that there is more to come, and that seems to me promising indeed) of such criticism in a piece contextualizing pseudo-scientific futurological extrapolations in an apocalyptic religiosity lending itself to technological determinism over at Soft Machines: