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

Sunday, August 07, 2016

Futurist Authority and the Toppling of the Ivory Tower

Upgraded and adapted from the Moot, my friend and friend-of-blog "JimF" quoted from a piece by "mathbabe," Cathy O'Neil, The Absurd Moral Authority of Futurism:
Yesterday one of my long-standing fears was confirmed: futurists are considered moral authorities... [A]n article entitled "Microsoft Pitches Technology That Can Read Facial Expressions at Political Rallies" ...described a new Microsoft product that is meant to be used at large events like the Superbowl, or a Trump rally, to discern “anger, contempt, fear, disgust, happiness, neutral, sadness or surprise” in the crowd. Spokesperson Kathryn Stack, when asked whether the tool could be used to identify dissidents or protesters, responded as follows: “I think that would be a question for a futurist, not a technologist.” Can we parse that a bit?. . . I’d like to point out that futurism is male dominated, almost entirely white, and almost entirely consists of Silicon Valley nerds. They spend their time arguing about the exact timing and nature of the singularity, whether we’ll live forever in bliss or we’ll live forever under the control of rampant and hostile AI. In particular, there’s no reason to imagine that they are well-versed in the history or in the rights of protesters or of political struggle.
Yeah, I read that piece when links to it deliriously proliferated on my twitter feed yesterday. Definitely I agree with her point about the profound staleness, paleness and maleness of the "discipline" of futurism. That's a point I used to hammer quite a bit here, years back, a critique that eventually condensed into the hard diamond of an aphorism: "The futurists have seen The Future... and it is a white penis." But apart from that important point, I would reiterate once again that futurism is best understood as a public relations and marketing genre masquerading as a kind of policy analysis or even analytic philosophy and that this, too, makes it utterly inapt as a source of guidance in public or personal deliberation. One might as well be guided by late-nite infomercials or televangelist scams. And I mean that analogy more literally than many people seem to realize. For the reasons why, and for the most concise but fully elaborated version of my critique of reactionary futurology, let me recommend, as usual, the piece published in Existenz: Posthuman Terrains and Futurological Discourses or, if your tastes run more to the polemical, either The Unbearable Stasis of Accelerating Change or An Open Letter to the Robot Cultists.

Setting all that aside, I would add that there are interlocking causes and contexts for the disastrous investment of the futurological with scientific and ethical authority when futurism is a pseudo-scientific moralism deserving nothing but rejection and ridicule. This is just a quick sketch, but among these contexts are: first, a general American anti-intellectualism coupled with privileged insulation that has fed serial dysfunctions of this kind throughout US history; second, the bankruptcy of Anglo-American analytic philosophy as a paradigm (futurology is in many ways the zombie apocalypse of that paradigm, I hear in "less wrong" and "existential-risk" the grunts of a discourse too dull to discern its death) after the eclipse of pragmatism and given the endless know-nothing reactionary assaults against the "postmodern relativism" and "politically correct multiculturalism" of continental thought; third, the breakdown of the academy as a source of reliable expertise in the grip of the neoliberal pincer attack of an ongoing looting, digitization, precarization of public higher education and the treatment of the profitably disinformational think-tank archipelago as an intellectually equivalent force to that embattled academy; fourth, the emergence of pseudo-disciplinary spaces like "bioethics" and "design" (and yes, "future studies" in their many variations, among these, if I may say so, too often "digital humanities") that rationalize tech sector abuses while pretending to autonomy from them, and so on.

ADDED: By the way, when I bemoan the looting and dismantlement of the academy this is not to say that I am unaware of or indifferent to the fact that the academy has never been an equitable or innocent space -- far from it. The academy has never been but should be a source of reliable and clearly communicated knowledge to help guide public deliberation over our shared problems as well as a space of intellectual exploration and provocation available to every interested citizen as well as an ongoing experimental space for practical, creative, critical conviviality, ramifying hopes, histories, strategies outward into our diverse secular republic and distressed planet. Such an Idea of the University remains urgently necessary even though it has never been realized and the ongoing demolition of the academy renders that realization ever more distant and tenuous. That is all that I am saying. The authority attaching to the deceptive and hyberbolic PR narratives of corporate-military futurism is just a symptom of the reactionary toppling of the ivory tower. Making debt-free higher education available to all, making knowledge production arising from the academy freely available to all, connecting intellectual life to worldly concerns and the academy to the community of which it is a part, protecting free inquiry and expressivity in the academy from the pressures, prejudices and parochialisms of elites, incumbents, and fashions would not just topple the ivory tower into a ruin but transform it into a beacon. 


D. Gloumbia said...

on the late-night infomercial/futurology nexus, this has always been a favorite of mine ever since I stumbled on it:

D. Gloumbia said...

and some interesting ties emerge between futurology (admittedly, of a relatively sober sort), analytic philosophy, and Officialdom including Good People like the RAND Corporation, in this book & elsewhere in this philosopher's work (turned up in a now-dormant investigation of mine into thinking about the future)--can't remember if the good ol' "Delphi Method" turns up here or not:

Dale Carrico said...

Very true, very important. You know, part of the reason Hannah Arendt (patron saint of this blog) managed to provide such prophetic critiques of futurology and artificial intelligence -- I elaborated this point in April 2009, in Hannah Arendt on Futurology and Hannah Arendt on Common Sense and Hannah Arendt on AI -- is because she happened to read and grapple with "Thinking the Unthinkable" and "The Report from Iron Mountain," one a prescient documentary critique and the other a brutal satire of corporate-military think-tanks, and both of which were taking on RAND in particular. Still worth reading, I've even taught Iron Mountain at UCB fairly recently and it's still a jolt.

D. Gloumbia said...

now I kind of want to teach a course organized around Iron Mountain--I had not noticed that about Arendt.

since it didn't get automagically created the first time, now I'll build a clickable link to Uncle Ray the Immortal one appearing with Crissie from Three's Company because I love it just that much:

jimf said...

> [P]art of the reason Hannah Arendt. . . managed to provide such
> prophetic critiques of futurology and artificial intelligence. . .
> I elaborated this point in April 2009, in Hannah Arendt on Futurology
> is because she happened to read and grapple with "Thinking the Unthinkable"
> and "The Report from Iron Mountain," one a prescient documentary critique
> and the other a brutal satire of corporate-military think-tanks,
> and both of which were taking on RAND in particular.
People who specialized in thinking about national insecurity
came to be known as “defense intellectuals.” Pioneers
in this endeavor back in the 1950s were as likely to collect
their paychecks from think tanks like the prototypical
RAND Corporation as from more traditional academic institutions.
Their ranks included creepy figures like Herman Kahn,
who took pride in “thinking about the unthinkable,” and
Albert Wohlstetter, who tutored Washington in the complexities
of maintaining “the delicate balance of terror.” . . .
Fat Man
Herman Kahn and the nuclear age.
By Louis Menand

. . .

In his day, Kahn was the subject of many magazine stories,
and most of them found it important to mention his girth --
he was built, one journalist recorded, “like a prize-winning pear” --
and his volubility. He was a marathon spielmeister, . . .
a jocular, gregarious giant who chattered on about fallout shelters,
megaton bombs, and the incineration of millions. Observers
were charmed or repelled, sometimes charmed and repelled. Reporters
referred to him as “a roly-poly, second-strike Santa Claus”
and “a thermonuclear Zero Mostel.” He is supposed to have had
the highest I.Q. on record. . .

The best-known response to “On Thermonuclear War” was a movie. . .

“The movie could very easily have been written by Herman Kahn himself,”
Midge Decter wrote in Commentary when “Dr. Strangelove” came out, in 1964. . .

There were a number of possible models for the character of Strangelove. . .

But one source was Kahn. Strangelove’s rhapsodic monologue about
preserving specimens of the race in deep mineshafts is an only
slightly parodic version of Kahn. There were so many lines from
“On Thermonuclear War” in the movie, in fact, that Kahn complained
that he should get royalties. (“It doesn’t work that way,” Kubrick
told him.) Kahn received something more lasting than money, of course.
He got himself pinned in people’s minds to the figure of Dr. Strangelove,
and he bore the mark of that association forever. . .

jimf said...

This just sounds like the most delightful place to work.
(I've **known** people like this. They do indeed get
you down after prolonged exposure.)
_Wild Man: The Life and Times of Daniel Ellsberg_
Tom Wells
Chapter 5, "Supergenius"

The intellectual environment and RAND was loose. . . But interdisciplinary
work was hazardous, as the place was cliquish. . .

"It was a very competitive, vicious environment," . . . a RAND sovietologist
at the time remembers. "RAND was a ball-busting place." . . .
When one abrasive RAND mathematician attacked another man's presentation,
the presenter "grew so nervous that he finally fainted." . . .

One of the sharpest knives at RAND was wielded by Albert Wolhstetter,
a powerful and controversial figure. . . "He did it with style. . .
walking in very late, looking at the victim -- then **destroy**. . .
He was **nasty**. Ruthless and nasty." Many analysts were intimidated
by him. "He managed to have an enormous store of facts at his
fingertips. . . If you raised an objection to something he was saying
or proposing, he could bring out that stack of facts with amazing
facility." The nuclear strategist Bernard Brodie, who became an
enemy of Wolhstetter, almost had a nervous breakdown because of
him. . . "He became so broken down in the presence of Albert," Thomas
Schelling remembers. "Just tongue-tied. And I'm sure Dan [Ellsberg]
never did. Dan would just never be intimidated by somebody like

A mathematical logician. . . Wolhstetter was brilliant, suave,
sophisticated, a Renaissance man. A perfectionist, he had problems
completing work and was difficult to work with. . .

Wohlstetter and his wife. . . also a talented RAND analyst, and their
unconventional daughter lived in a glamorous, distinctive home in
the Hollywood hills. It had a spiral stairway, pool, bamboo, view,
the whole bit. [They] entertained frequently, in high style.
Albert liked to hold court and be the center of attention. He would
"talk. . . at nauseating length about a fine little wine or some
cuisine. He was. . . a monomaniacal monologuer" . . . [and]
a big name-dropper. But he could be charming. . . "If you're willing
to listen, he gets to like you." Wohlstetter's ego was gargantuan.
"His attitude was sort of, 'I'm the only smart person there is,"
a former RAND engineer remembers. "And when you listened to him
carefully, what he would really be saying is, 'Those other guys
are pretty dumb, aren't they?' . . .

jimf said...

Is there such a thing as a **nice** mathematician?

"A Beautiful Behind"
Book Review:
Sylvia Nasar: A Beautiful Mind, a biography of
John Forbes Nash, Jr.
from Ferment
VolXII #4
September 9, 1998
Editor, Roy Lisker

[John] Nash joined the faculty of MIT in 1951, where he remained until
quitting in 1959. From Nasar's account we learn that Nash carved out a
special niche for himself in the pantheon of the world's worst
mathematics instructors. Students in his classes were regularly
derided and ridiculed. He called them "stupid" and "idiots" - to be
fair, he didn't treat his colleagues any better. He ignored both
questions and requests. . .

[A] typical afternoon in the common room of a typical mathematics
department at a major university [is] something that can only
be understood from direct experience. . .

As a class, research mathematicians are competitive, rude,
introverted, irritable and poorly endowed by disposition or training
with the conventional social graces. It is a noisy silence, rather
than voluble discourse, that fills the corridors and common rooms of
research departments. People in divergent disciplines, logic and
differential equations for example, use such incompatible
vocabularies that they, literally, have nothing to talk about. . .

Persons in exactly the same area of research also don't tend to talk
to each other. On one level they may be concerned that others will
steal their ideas. They also have a very understandable fear of
presenting a new direction of inquiry before it has matured, lest the
listening party trample the frail buds of thought beneath a sarcastic
put-down. . .

Above everyone's head at a gathering of mathematicians hangs the
scimitar of exposure of ignorance. Say you get into conversation with
someone who brings up the concept of a "Riemann surface". You decide
to risk all by confessing that you don't know what a Riemann surface
is. The words are barely spoken when already the eyes of almost
everyone else in the lounge is fixing you with a look of
long-suffering, malevolent and self-righteous disgust. Never mind
that your field is mathematical logic, or discrete semi-groups, or
computability, or combinatorics, in which the concept of a Riemann
surface rarely, if ever, enters. You are now forever type-cast as
ignorant. Excessively insecure individuals, notably graduate
students, may even start wondering aloud, (behind your back
naturally), what somebody like you is doing in their great department
in the first place.

Because just about everyone fears lest his ignorance be disclosed,
people rarely open their mouths for any purpose other than that of
speaking innocuous banalities. Or sometimes they may venture to talk
about other subjects altogether, music, or politics, or Elizabethan
drama. Yet one must be careful not to do too much of this, since
there are some sorts who may begin suggesting that he's covering up
his ignorance of 'real mathematics' by vaunting his knowledge of
something else. Furthermore since many mathematicians do not
cultivate interests outside of mathematics, such conversations on
complementary subject matter soon peter out.

Departmental teas tend to be held around 3:30 or 4:00, just before the
afternoon seminars and colloquia. People sit apart, or in little
groups, their minds consumed by calculation:

(1) The obsessive-compulsive calculation of solutions to problems and
equations. This goes on relentlessly, even in dreams.

(2) The calculation of how much of what one thinks or knows may be
safely revealed in a room of many potential enemies and few allies. At
those times the climate of a mathematics lounge will be crippled by an
oppressive and surly silence. Conversations will be punctuated with
long, vacant silences, abstract gazing at the empty walls or out the
windows, and excessive caution in speaking out. Hostility in all of
its forms, subtle or crude, is omnipresent. Indeed the atmosphere may
be so thick with tension that only a saber could cut it. . .

jimf said...

> Is there such a thing as a **nice** mathematician?

Bertrand Russell?

Actually, come to think, Ray Monk, his biographer, ended
up not liking him very much.

And his daughter, Katharine Russell Tait, wrote a book
(_My Father, Bertrand Russell_) in which she (while making
it clear that she loved her father dearly) revealed some
of the less pleasant aspects of being a member of the family
of one of the preeminent intellectuals of the last century.

jimf said...

> . . .some interesting ties emerge between futurology (admittedly,
> of a relatively sober sort). . . and Officialdom including
> Good People like the RAND Corporation

Herman Kahn was himself a futurologist:

_The Year 2000: A Framework for Speculation on the Next Thirty-Three Years_
Collier Macmillan Ltd. (February 1968)

Make that 48 years, now. 1968 was, of course, the year HAL appeared
on movie screens. Did Kahn (and Wiener) say anything about that?
Well, yes:
Table XIX: Some Less Likely but Important Possiblities

These are all misses, except for #22, which I would classify as a partial
hit due to the development of IVF.

1. "True" artificial intelligence
2. Practical use of sustained fusion to produce neutrons and/or energy
3. Artificial growth of new limbs and organs (either in situ or for later transplantation)
4. Room temperature superconductors
5. Major use of rockets for commercial of private transportation (either terrestrial or extraterrestrial)
6. Effective chemical or biological treatment for most mental ilnesses
7. Almost complete control of marginal changes in heredity
8. Suspended animation (for years or centuries)
9. Practical materials with nearly "theoretical limit" strength
10. Conversion of mammals (humans?) to fluid breahters
11. Direct input into human memory banks
12. Direct augmentation of human mental capacity by the mechanical or electrical interconnection of the brain with a computer
13. Major rejuvenation and/or significant extension of vigor and life span--say 100 to 150 years
14. Chemical or biological control of character or intelligence
15. Automated highways

. . .



An Amazon reviewer says:

It's not about predicting technological innovations.
24 May 2016
By Scott Harris - Published on

. . .

What critics who focus on technological advancement miss is that
the heart of this book is not his speculations about technological
inventions and innovations, but rather his framework for thinking
about the 33 years from 1967 to 2000. . . He was clearly using
Moore's Law before it was known as Moore's Law. . .

Yes, the SFnal predictions are pretty standard, and Kahn and Wiener
didn't even have Moore's Law (so called) to hang their hats on.
But Moore's "Law" (looking more and more uncertain these
days, alas) certainly gave the futurologists **juice**.
Juice, man juice! Why you neggin' out? ;->

There have also been rumors that a RAND researcher unofficially gave
advice to Gene Roddenberry about _Star Trek_:
Harvey P. Lynn, Jr.. . . a member of the prestigious RAND Corporation,
provided Star Trek original series creator Gene Roddenberry with scientific
and technical advice during preproduction of the series. . .

It was a modest involvement.

Loc. cit.
Some brief comments regarding what I know about Dad's involvement:

He graduated as an Electrical Engineer. Worked at RAND as a liaison Officer
between RAND and Project Airforce. Was never starstruck and had little
interest in TV, films, or science fiction. Apparently he met Mr. Roddenberry
though a mutual friend and was selected for the technical consultant job
more because he hit it off with Mr. Roddenberry than his technical expertise.
When offered the job, he boned up on physics, astronomy, etc. He picked up
surprisingly quickly on how to express the technical elements simply...
ie not having to explain how a phaser works...sort of how most people know
that a light switch turns on the lights but don't wonder about the mechanics.

From his earnings as consultant, we bought our first color TV. I think
that's in 'The Making of Star Trek'. My Dad was never really a big fan
of the show...not a Trekkie in today's sense. . .

Dale Carrico said...

Man, the list of futurological predictions is an unchangeable as a catechism, generation after generation after generation... and serves much the same purpose I'll be bound.