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

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Science Fiction Is Not Agitprop For Your "The Future"

Upgraded and adapted from the Moot, "JimF" snarks about an interview in the transhumanoid magazine humanity-plus -- so if you don't get it, you're obviously "humanity-minus" like me -- portentiously (obviously) entitled, Transhumanist Science Fiction: The Most Important Genre the World Has Ever Seen? (An Interview with David Simpson). In this piece, "science fiction author, transhumanist, and award-winning English literature teacher" David Simpson talks about "his Post-Human series (which include the novels Sub-Human, Post-Human, Trans-Human, Human Plus, and Inhuman) [which] is centered on the topics and interests of transhumanists." We are told that "David is also currently working with producers to turn the Post-Human series into a major motion picture."

All this is of world shattering importance because the hoary sfnal conceits predictably tumbling in these superlative fictions like socks in a dryer (reconceived, you will have noticed as "topics and interests of transhumanists," that is to say reconceived as legitimate scientific/philosophical objects and political/policy stakes for legible constituencies -- neither of which they remotely are) are imagined here to function as educational, agitational, and organizational agitprop fueling a movement that will sweep the world and materially bring about "The Future" with which that movement identifies. In other words, the usual stuff and nonsense.

"JimF" notices a family resemblance of these earthshatttering "notions" with those already available in, for example, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Blade Runner and Alien (and I will speak of Star Trek in a moment), although he takes an ironic measure of reassurance in the fact that the attention spans of modern audiences would no doubt require even literal remakes of these classics to be embiggened and ennobled by the introduction of kung-fu and car chase sequences.

Anyway, "JimF" connects these dreary ruminations on (counter-)revolutionary futurological propaganda films with the recent hopes of Chris Edgette to Kickstart a film called I's about the usual futurological is that ain't, telling the story of the rather Biblical Workweek from the day a supercomputer that "wakes up" (how original! how provocative! you really gotta hand it to him) and then snowballs in days into the Rapture/Apocalypse of the Singularity. You know, rather like Left Behind for New Age pseudo-scientists.

Or, The Lawnmower Man -- AGAIN!

Rather like Randroids who seem to keep pinning their hopes on the next Atlas Shrugged movie sweeping the world and bringing the masses to muscular greedhead baby jeebus, so too the pale stale males of the Robot Cult really truly seem to keep thinking that the next iteration of The Lawnmower Man won't only not suck but will bring on the Singularity at last.

Anyhoozle, "JimF" is clearly on the same wavelength when he snarkily wonder whether futurological propaganda pedagogues and hopes of the world like David Simpson and Chris Edgette haven't had most of their thunder stolen by now what with the megaflop of Transcendence, the limp sexism of critical darling and popular meh Her, and the forgettable racist amusements of Lucy.   

But, if those recent sf retreads could steal transhumanoid singularitarian agitprop thunder, personally I can't for the life of me conceive why Star Trek hadn't already stolen their thunder irrevocably before they even started. Needless to say, uploading (in well over a dozen eps), sentient robots/computers, genetic (and ESPer) supermen, better than real virtualities, techno superabundance were all explored as sfnal conceits in Star Trek.

But also needless to say (sadly, no, this obviously needs saying), none of these sfnal conceits originated in Star Trek either, they were each citations in a popular and popularizing sf series of widely and readily available tropes.

Quite beyond the paradoxical figuration of the brain dumbing mind numbing stasis of their endlessly regurgitated futurological catechism as some kind of register "shock levels" and "accelerating change" (or even the "acceleration of acceleration"!) -- a paradox not unconnected with the skim-and-scam upward fail con artistry of tech startups describing as "disruptions" their eager amplications of the deregulatory looting and fraudulent financialization of the already catastrophically prevailing neoliberal status quo -- it really is extraordinary to grasp how superannuated the presumably shattering provocations of the Robot Cultists really turn out to be, the most ham handed reiterations of the most stock sf characters and conceits imaginabl
Just as Star Trek explored current politics allegorically (notoriously sometimes somewhat 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.
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. 
Star Trek actually did and does still inspire mass movements -- but surely not all or even more than a few of its fans thought or think their enthusiasm for the specificities of the show's characters or plots or furniture, or even for the secular scientific liberal multiculturalism of its values, expect that they constitute somehow the kernel of a literal proto-federation that will bring its inventions into existence through the shared fervency of their fandom at conventions.
I often chide transhumanoids as pseudo-scientific scam artists peddling boner pill and anti-aging kreme scams but amplified from late-nite infomercials to outright phony religions faith-based initiatives. But I also often chide them as consumer 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. 
Star Trek was not predicting or building a vision of "The Future," but exposing the futurity inhering in the diversity of beings in the present, reminding us of the wonder and promise and danger of that ever-open futurity, understanding that its audience corralled together a diversity out of whom also-open next-presents would be made. Like all true sf, like all true literature, Star Trek solicits our more capacious identification with the diversity of beings with whom we share the present world, the better to engage that diversity in the shaping of shared present worlds to come.
Champions of science -- who treat science as pseudo-scientific PR and faith-based techno-transcendentalism? Sf fandoms -- who don't even get that sf is literature? Is it any wonder these clueless careless dumbasses think they are the smartest guys in any room?


jimf said...

Speaking of

> . . .the brain dumbing mind numbing stasis of their
> endlessly regurgitated futurological catechism. . .

I don't think you could put it more succinctly than this:
Cryonics Is Way More Cool Than You Think
Why you should give some thought to the radical practice of cryonics.
by Luke Parrish on 1 June 2011

Transcript of Cryonics Is Way More Cool Than You Think

Cryonics Human life extension self-preservation humanity
no limits it's cooler than you think rationality portal
to the future inexpensive for everyone possible real values
Alcor Cryonics Institute Suspended Animation KrioRus
EUCRIO Humanity+ Transhumanist Movement Less Wrong
Extropians Millions of supporters

So there!

jimf said...

> But, if those recent sf retreads could steal transhumanoid
> singularitarian agitprop thunder, personally I can't for
> the life of me conceive why Star Trek hadn't already
> stolen their thunder irrevocably before they even started.
> Needless to say, uploading (in well over a dozen eps), sentient
> robots/computers, genetic (and ESPer) supermen, better than
> real virtualities, techno superabundance were all explored as
> sfnal conceits explored in Star Trek.

Yes, well there are a couple of problems with acknowledging
Star Trek's existence. For one thing, I've noticed that
some "serious" SF authors (and for that matter, most
folks who were simply too old, even if they were already
SF fans, to be sucked in when the show appeared on
NBC in 1966 -- granted, such people are getting
a bit long in the tooth by now, and Star Trek is now
a part of basic cultural literacy -- what would my parents
have said about **that**? ;-> ) simply cannot lower themselves
to paying any attention to Star Trek at all, and certainly not to the
extent of bothering to learn or remember what tropes the
show employed. I can't blame these people too much. I was
14 when the show first came on TV (though my parents forbade me
to watch it after the first couple of episodes during
school time -- I had to wait for the summer re-runs), and
**I** thought the show was cool just because it at least
made a token effort to acknowledge the things one would
take for granted in an SF novel -- such as that you couldn't
get from star system to star system in a few hours or
days without having to go faster than light -- hence "warp
drive", Star Trek's equivalent of the ubiquitous "hyperdrive"
of the pulp SF novels of the time. Earlier TV shows like
Lost in Space (or even The Outer Limits) didn't even
bother to acknowledge the problem. But later entertainments, like
the Star Wars saga (despite my having enjoyed the hell
out of the first movie in '77), or Harry Potter (despite
my having been seized by Tolkien just a year and a half
before Trek), or the anime craze (though I do like one or two
of them, like The Ghost in the Shell) have similarly passed
me by and left me cold.

jimf said...

The other thing about Trek that's likely a problem for most
(libertarian) transhumanists is that it's got a distinctly left-wing aura.
One gets the impression that it's Earth is either a post-scarcity world (like
Banks' "Culture") or that at the very least everybody is
guaranteed a basic standard of living, that money isn't too important
(except to the Ferengi, who were a late addition to the
Trek canon), and that the Federation certainly isn't
run by business tycoons.

> [I]t really is extraordinary to grasp how superannuated
> the presumably shattering provocations of the Robot Cultists
> really turn out to be, the most ham handed reiterations of the
> most stock sf characters and conceits imaginable.

Yes, well, that is of course what got up my nose about
the title of the article in H+ Magazine ("Transhumanist Science
Fiction: The Most Important Genre The World Has Ever
Seen?"). The smug, self-important fatuity of it. David Simpson
may be a nice guy (I haven't read the interview), and he
may even have written some decent SF (hell, Ramez Naam's
_Nexus_ and _Crux_ were at least readable, and I'll read
the final _Apex_ when it comes out). But, what -- H. G. Wells'
_The Time Machine_ **wasn't** "transhumanist science fiction"?
Eloi and Morlocks don't count? Let alone Olaf Stapledon's
_Odd John_ or J. D. Beresford's _The Hampdenshire Wonder_,
or Arthur C. Clarke's _Childhood's End_, or. . .

No, the problem with those old fogies is that they're dead
(how embarrassing!) and their books are too dusty to be co-opted
by the current movement >Hists into serving as policy wonk manuals or,
as you say, "agitprop" to stir up the masses into taking
the contemporary >Hists seriously (sending them money
or voting for Peter Thiel- or Koch brothers-approved
political candidates). Because The Singularity Is a-Comin',
dontcha know! And as for more recent SF authors who have
an existence and readership independent of the movement >Hists,
well, William Gibson is just too cynical,
and Iain Banks was too leftie, and Greg Egan and Charlie
Stross have been mean to the >Hists, so who's
left? David Simpson, I guess.

jimf said...

> 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.

Well, at least you're not the only one, these days. ;->
TvTropes Pleads the Fifth: The Wonk Man's Burden

. . .

California? California. . .

I spent a few months in San Francisco as an intern in CS
and it is UNBELIEVABLE how many people are just that kind
of crazy. As an actual graduate-degree-holding AI researcher
(and, before that part of my life, a LessWrongRobot),
let me agree that Yudkowsky is insane. He has all these
clever one-sentence rebuttals to being told that his work
is meaningless by the AI research community (he has
self-published journal articles. I mean, come on, guy.),
but has failed to consider the most obvious one: he is
working in the center of a cult and his work is actually
meaningless outside the cult.


I'm curious, is there any overlap between LessWrong and
those Dark Enlightenment psychos?


Only insofar as some neo-reactionaries want society to be ruled
by an immortal and perfect philosopher-king AI. IIRC,
the neo-reactionaries who showed up on LessWrong got booted
out and made their own warren of inane sophistry called "MoreRight".


It's closer than you'd think. Konkvistador and Mike Anissimov
were big posters on LW and they didn't get chased out so much
as get tired of being contradicted. Less Wrong poster Yvain
made an anti-reactionary FAQ to justify not being one.
They're a minority, but a loud and respected one


I guess I'm just constantly surprised at how regressive
futurists/utopian idealists are. You'd think that a group
that's so dedicated to progress would do better than fetishize
some of the worst parts of the past.

(See also:
The Less Wrong Mock Thread: The Big Yudkowsky )

Athena Andreadis said...

There's both a physiological and conceptual reason why the terms for change in acceleration are jerk, jolt or lurch.

It's telling that TH chose to essentially be a branch of cyberpunk, a heavily regressive SFF subgenre (self-labeled "edginess" notwithstanding).