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

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Year's Last Tweet

Breaking! Cat Proof Sofa Saga Resolves on New Year's Eve

This calls for champagne. But, then, doesn't everything?

ABBA New Year to All!

It's another cherished Amor Mundi holiday tradition!

#libertarianismin4words Twitterrant

Top Ten Posts for 2013

10. p2p is EITHER Pay-to-Peer OR it is Peers-to-Precarity, originally published March 23.
9. "Driverless Cars" As Dead-Ender Car Culture Apologia, originally published January 7.
8. Darkest Before the Dawn, originally published October 2.
7. A Robot God Apostle's Creed for the "Less Wrong" Throng, originally published January 26.
6. Tim O'Reilly on "The Golden Age", originally published January 23.
5. Why Does Tim Wu Side With the Technoblatherers? , originally published April 13.
4. It's Time To Fight Some More Culture Wars: Abortion, Guns, Climate Change, originally published September 13.
3. Our Civil War, Like Our Revolution, Rages On, originally published October 19.
2. Deception, Delusion, and Denial Isn't Optimism, originally published January 2 (a rather vapid post it seems to me, but leading to one of the more heated zig-zaggy Moots in a while).
1. Sermon on Mont Pelerin: Or, Why It Is Better to Read Political Positions Rhetorically Not Philosophically, originally published November 29.

Special Mention: I devoted nearly as much time to microblogging as to longform blogging this year, and sometimes I culled tweets from longer pieces, and sometimes a string of tweets got plumped into a longform post, and sometimes even stranger chimerical forms emerged. This gnomic oddball was one of my favorites: A Twitter Privacy Treatise, originally published September 14.

Monday, December 30, 2013

Janelle Monae Covers Prince's Let's Go Crazy Live



Givin Em What They Love...

Futurism As Tinpot Fiefdom

Upgraded and adapted from the Moot:

I still think the crucial proto-futurist sub(cult)ure accreted around OMNI magazine -- a periodical I devoured all the way through high school, by the way. I still remember getting breathless mailings from Durk Pearson and Sandy Shaw and Gerard O'Neill. Clearly, all the necessary pieces of techno-immortalist and life extension and drextech handwaving-cum-scamartistry were already more or less in place by then. I'm pretty sure I heard about cryonics there first, too, but maybe I saw Ettinger on Johnny Carson like so many million others -- funny the "movement" remained so marginal after all that free press, isn't it? L5 was unquestionably a Drexler incubator, but so was the MediaLab. I can't remember if there was much cross-pollination between OMNoids and MIT's Media Lab otherwise -- a whole host of transhumanoid-adjacent folks, Minsky, Drexler, Hillis, Reingold milled around there with Negroponte -- there you find the cohort that will become WIRED, the Foresight Institute, the Well, the Edge.org crowd, the Long Now boutique futurists all rubbing shoulders... The tropes, the dopes, the funders are pretty weirdly static, especially considering all the endless cheerleading about disruption and accelerating change, I must say. It really always has been a rather tinpot fiefdom, futurology, hasn't it?

Obviously, No "Real Murcans" Were Polled!

PolitcalWire:
A new Gallup poll finds President Obama and Hillary Clinton are the most admired man and woman in America by large margins for the sixth consecutive year.
This is excellent news for Republicans.

It's Not That The Luddites Will Take Your Magic Toys, It's That Magic Isn't Real

Upgraded and adapted from the Moot, where "kurt9" declares:
All of this transhumanist technology is being developed by private parties using private money. This is especially true for the life extension and cryonics stuff. If we are able to develop this technology on our own, using our own resources, why do we need to get the consent of those who do not share our objects? Or even discuss it with such parties at all? We can simply develop it on our own independent of the attitudes of those who do not share our objectives. I find these kind of "debate" and discussions to be pointless.
Let's dig in, shall we?

All of this transhumanist technology is being developed by private parties using private money. This is especially true for the life extension and cryonics stuff.

Actually, no it isn't. It really isn't. "Uploading," for one, isn't even a coherent ambition (you are not a picture of you, and no computer is eternal), and the trumpeted genetic/ pharmaceutical/ prosthetic proposals are nothing but loose talk for the rubes. In the post to which you are responding I said that no medical breakthroughs will increase the average adult life expectancy in the notional democracies by so much as five years in the next ten years -- and most probably the next 25 years. Expectations of imminent breakthroughs leapfrogging you into centuries-long sexy lifespans are simply arrant nonsense. Take a look at adult life expectancy at age 65 over the last twenty-five years (years, mind you, of! accelerating! change! in the midst of the internet boom new economy boom biotech boom extropian boom). You can stamp your foot if you like but I'm fifty and I've been following futurologists and transhumanoids for thirty, this ain't my first time at the rodeo. Of course, medical research is a good thing and one hopes some good therapies and cures are indeed under development to ameliorate suffering and disease -- as I say, providing universal access to healthcare, clean water, basic support would free billions of lives to contribute to shared problem-solving and creative expression. I daresay you should know better about all the silly Robot Cult stuff when it still hasn't panned out in a decade and yet the promises remain exactly the same and exactly as fervent as a sales pitch.

why do we need to get the consent of those who do not share our objects?

You can join any cult you want to, dear "kurt9." And once you're dead it is a matter of indifference to me whether your corpse is buried, cremated, mummified, compressed into a diamond, shot into orbit, or your hamburgerized brain wrapped in foil and dropped into dry ice for Randian sociopaths to watch over in a desert. If you want to be resurrected in a sexy robot body that can do Hogwarts magic with nanofog or you want to be uploaded as a cyberangel in Holodeck Heaven I can't say that is stranger by far than the faiths billions of other people espouse. As a cheerful atheist I find these idiosyncrasies charming to the extent that they do not function as rationales for reactionary politics. Of course, if fraudulent claims are being made, they should be prosecuted, and if ridiculous claims are being made, they should be ridiculed, if reactionary claims are made, they should be exposed by good people of good will lest they harm anyone.

Or even discuss it with such parties at all?

I invite discussion but certainly am in no position to demand it or to censor it. You seemed to want to say something, and here you are saying it. I say what I want, too. It's not a bad arrangement.

We can simply develop it on our own independent of the attitudes of those who do not share our objectives.

You are not an island, and neither science nor discourse more generally are solitary endeavors. It is true that transhumanoids and singularitarians often pine in public places for a separatist enclave to retreat to -- a private island, an oil platform paradise city, a dome under the sea, a secret lab in the asteroid belt. I daresay it is no easy thing to want "technology" to enable you to live forever on a treasure pile under the ministrations of a kindly parental Robot God or whatever when all the actually knowledgeable scientists say you can't and most people know better the difference between scientific communities and science fiction fandoms.

I find these kind of "debate" and discussions to be pointless.

I don't doubt it. True Believers always do. But I tell you earnestly that you will not find techno-transcendence in Robototalism, via Robot God, Robot Bodies, Nanobotic Magic, or the rest... not because your evil luddite foes don't believe in "The Future" with their whole hearts like you do, but quite simply because magic isn't real. Science and science fiction are both marvelous, but don't get it twisted, my friend.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

The Funhouse Mirror Has Two Faces: Transhumanists and Bioconservatives on Robototalism

Futurity cannot be delineated but only lived, in serial presents attesting always unpredictably to struggle and to expression. "The Future," to the contrary, brandishing the shackle of its definite article, is always described from a parochial present and is always a funhouse mirror reflecting a parochial present back to itself, amplifying its desires and fears, confirming its prejudices, reassuring its Believers that the Key to History is in their hands. -- Futurological Brickbats
Two pieces on "transhumanism" have attracted a lot of interest this week, or at any rate exhortations to click links on my twitter feed, one of them written a couple of days ago, the other written a couple of years ago. One piece, by Frances Martel, is entitled Defying Human Nature One Cyborg Limb At A Time, the other, by Rebecca Taylor, is entitled Transhumanism Turns People Into Slaves to Technology.

The juxtaposition of titles seems to stage a confrontation, and it is true that one piece is mostly celebratory in tone, the other alarmist. But what strikes me as most interesting about the pairing is what they have in common: in order to take transhumanism seriously enough in the first place to find it worthy of celebration or of alarm both authors must first disdain actually-existing medical and material and computational techniques and their actually-urgent quandaries in the real world, the better to focus on entirely imaginary "technologies" and then to elicit from their conjuration entirely symptomatic wish-fulfillment fantasies and existential dread.

Not incidentally, both of the pieces arrive from right-wing reactionary precincts -- Martel's celebration was published by the notorious Breitbart scandal and conspiracy sheet, Taylor's by "LifeNews," a forced-pregnancy advocacy and woman's healthcare denialist site. This is not an accident -- to engage critically and factually with actually-existing techniques and the urgency of stakes associated with the inequitable distribution of their costs, risks, and benefits would inevitably take us to left-wing progressive precincts.

The first paragraph of Frances Martel's article immediately and insistently lodges her account in the fantastic:
The past few years have seen a surging interest in the international scientific movement to "help end human death." It fears no mechanics and abhors the imperfections of the human body. Transhumanism is snowballing into an international movement aggressively defying human nature and embracing machines.
To begin where Martel begins, let me just insist at the outset that if we are talking about self-identified "transhumanists" and "singularitarians" who think they are part of a techno-transcendental movement sweeping the world, then we need to take assertions about "surging interest" and a "snowballing… international movement" with a grain of salt. Transhumanism remains as it was twenty or forty years ago (depending on whether you want to treat Ettinger's Cryonics Institute, O'Neill's L5 Society, Negroponte's Media Lab, or More's Extropy Institute as the superlative futurological locus classicus) now as ever a minute, marginal, minority subculture or fandom that is indicatively white, male, elite, incumbent. Given the simplification and drama of their distinctive framings of complex technodevelopmental questions for a technoscientifically illiterate, gizmo-fetishizing consumer culture already prone to invest the "technological" with fantasies of superabundance and omnipotence as well as with nightmares of apocalypse and impotence, it has always been the case and remains true today that transhumanists, singularitarians, techno-immortalists, and the other futurist sects of the Robot Cult have attracted considerably greater media attention than the substance of their claims or their (lack of) credentials would ever warrant otherwise.

Setting that aside, though, it is also true that extreme, marginal, defensive futurological subcultures exist in the context of more prevailing neoliberal/neoconservative consumerist, developmentalist, extractive-industrialist norms and forms suffused with promises of techno-fixes, denials of limits, assumptions about the necessity of performance enhancement, not to mention the pretense of agreement as to what such enhancement consists of. It is for this reason that I am one of these people myself who devotes more attention to transhumanists than they deserve on the merits: This is simply because I regard them as clarifying in their extremity of the absurdity of more prevailing reactionary attitudes (okay, they are also hilarious, and the pure pleasure of it another reason to poke at them). I am not sure that Martel would justify her own interest in transhumanist on comparable grounds -- but instead celebrating as a conservative, say, more prevailing reductive, eugenic, polluting, immiserating technocratic elitisms through celebration of their extreme transhumanist forms where I regard the relation more as a useful reductio ad absurdum.

Beyond this quibble, let me turn to some deeper conceptual difficulties that are already evident in these few opening sentences. To declare that transhumanists are "defying human nature [by] embracing machines" seems for one thing to assume that machines defy rather than express nature when of course they depend on an understanding of the natural world to work at all; and for another thing seems to assume that language-using, tool-making, clothes-wearing, body-training, ground-cultivating, shelter-making, culture-articulating humans defy rather than express their own nature in taking up and taking on prostheses. This arrant absurdity depends for its plausibility and force in fact on Martel's selective fetishization of very particular artifacts and techniques, real and imagined -- computation freighted with omniscience, enhancement freighted with omnipotence, petro/digi/nano/fabbing techniques promising superabundance and hence freighted with post-historical post-political omnibenevolence -- as what we mean by "machines" while denying to most of the field of existing, familiar, assimilated, emerging, fraught artifice and technique the designation "machine" at all.

To declare as Martel does that transhumanism, "fears no mechanics," leaves the important question open, surely, whether or not transhumanists fear any dangerous, violent, exploitative deployments of "mechanics" -- as well as the question whether perhaps a focus on the so-called "nature of mechanics" functions to disavow or distract attention from more urgent political questions of who accesses and controls "mechanics" and to what ends. Likewise, to declare as Martel does that transhumanism "abhors the imperfections of the human body," leaves the important question open, surely, whether or not transhumanists are in a position to dictate what the imperfections of the human body are and in the service of which particular ends should some bodies be treated or made more perfect -- as well as the question whether perhaps a focus on the so-called technical perfectability of the body functions to disavow or distract attention from the fact that agreement does not exist about what human lifeways are and can be treated as legible, liveable, valuable, indispensable, flourishing.

"For transhumanists," writes Martel, "it is simply unethical to have the technology to permanently avoid death and not use it." But does it matter ethically that "the technology to permanently avoid death" does not exist to use, does not even remotely approach real availability for such use? Faith-based futurologists will start sputtering and handwaving at this point about genetic therapies and nanomachines and uploading their minds into Holodeck Heaven and all the rest. They will start citing loose pop-journalist talk and wildly extrapolate from pet press releases from austerity-starved research labs and soap-bubble tech companies, they will declare the "logical compatibility" of their sooper-tech daydreams with known physical laws, whatever our ignorance, whatever our available resources, whatever the costs, whatever the alternate priorities, whatever the distance from existing norms and forms, they will declare my realism and skepticism "anti-science" "luddism" and their own faith-based credulity and hyperbole the championing of "science" and "reason," and on and on and on. But the fact is that not only are none of these superlative techniques actually imminent and, face it, not even sufficiently proximate in the real-world developmental pipeline to enter into personal decision-making or public policymaking at all, but, not to put too fine a point on it: there is not a single therapeutic technique under research or in development the arrival of which in the next decade, or likely within even the coming quarter century, that will increase by as much as five years the average life expectancy of adults in the North Atlantic notional democracies.

Let me amplify the point: not only is it ethically nonsensical to declare "unethical" not using technologies that do not even exist for us to use, I will also say it is flatly unethical to discuss the ethics of imaginary technology at the cost of discussing real technoscience. There are no more urgent ethical dilemmas in the real world than the denial of universal access to basic healthcare in wealthy nations, than the banning of contraception, abortion, and assistive reproductive techniques to women around the world, than the neglect of treatable medical, nutritional, hygienic conditions in the overexploited regions of the world. What Mike Davis said fifteen years ago is as true as ever: access to clean water should be considered the most potent miracle drug on earth. These are the ethical and political discussions we are not having when we are discussing genetic superhuman and digital immortalization -- although, no doubt the latter discussions may best be understood as distorted allegories or symptomatic disavowals of these very real questions and their urgencies.

When Martel describes the transhumanist "movement" -- quoting the cynical self-descriptive vacuity of stealth robot-cult think-tank IEET -- as "creative and ethical use of technology to better the human condition" it is notable that neither creative nor ethical nor better human uses are defined. To do so would immediately reveal the eugenicism and reductivism and techno-triumphalism driving transhumanoid norms. Nor is there any indication in the formulation that none of the "technology" IEET happens actually to be preoccupied with the use of actually exists. To do so would immediately reveal the hyperbole and wish-fulfillment fantasizing driving transhumanoid forms. But it is also worth noting that nobody has to join a Robot Cult (and, indeed, almost nobody ever has) in order to approve the creative and ethical use of actually-available and actually-emerging artifice and techniques, and that if one is looking for actual education, agitation, subsidization, incentivization, legislation based on substantial and relevant definitions of the key terms in that formulation one should certainly look to more mainstream, progressive healthcare advocacy and science advocacy organizations and actually constituted academic disciplines like science and technology studies (STS) and environmental justice criticism (EJC) rather than futurological PR or futurist sub(cult)ural fandoms.

Rebecca Taylor's piece devotes most of its attention to transhumanist tropes and conceits playing out in video games, and if anything this makes the paradoxical address of healthcare realities through the lens of imaginary objects, speculation, projection, hyperbole even more conspicuous in her account than the futurological scenario spinning on which Martel depends. Taylor describes the game "Deus Ex" as transhumanist agitprop -- which is fair enough, I agree -- declaring it a "hard sell for using technology to replace normal body parts augmenting healthy humans beyond normal human abilities." Once again, this critique presumes that what presently count as human bodily norms are not themselves historically-situated, culturally-articulated, prosthetically-elaborated. If transhumanist "enhancement" discourse pretends to know in advance what counts for all as better, optimal, capacious lifeways, in no small part through recourse to an imaginary ideal superior post-human being with which they identify (at the cost, mind you, of threatened dis-identification with existing human lifeway diversity), it is crucial to recognize that bioconservative "preservationist" discourse pretends to know the same, again in no small part through recourse to an equally imaginary ideal normal natural-human with which they identify (once again, at the cost, mind you, of threatened dis-identification with existing lifeway diversity).

"Transhumanism is super seductive," writes Taylor. "And yet the reality will be far from what is depicted" in games like "Deus Ex." It is interesting to pause for a moment -- what exactly is one "seduced" into by this "transhumanism"? Since regenerative/rejuvenation medicine doesn't exist to deliver added centuries of model-sexy youth to lifespans aren't actually available, since uploading our minds as cyberangel avatars in Holodeck Heaven isn't actually available, since there are no designer bodies or babies or clone armies or Harryhausen talking chimeras anywhere nor will there be anytime soon -- what exactly are we being seduced into by transhumanism? As I said before, there are dangers in being seduced into discussing these imaginary outcomes rather than real perplexities, but it seems to me that Taylor is contributing to this danger rather than ameliorating it: When Taylor warns that "the reality will be far from… [the] depict[ion]" she is describing these hyperbolized unreal outcomes themselves as dangerous and worthy of our discussion in their danger, just as Martel seems to regard these hyperbolized unreal outcomes themselves as marvelous and worthy of our discussion for their marvels.

"Once people begin to augment," writes Taylor, "others will feel compelled to do the same, removing perfectly good eyes, ears, limbs and replacing them just to be able to keep up. At this point transhumanism will make man a slave to the technology he creates." To the extent that humans have always been thoroughly linguistic, accultured, prostheticized beings it is in fact profoundly obfuscatory to declare that transhuman fancies, of all things, would inaugurate human "augmentation," and serves to naturalize the contingent norms through which bodies and lives are presently naturalized and abjected in ways that are open to and suitable for contestation. There is indeed quite a lot to be said for the worry that dangerous performance enhancing drugs in the context of organized sport or that profoundly limiting forms of pedagogy in the service of presumably objective standardized measures of performance caught up in a pernicious and parochial logic of competitiveness do enormous harm. There is also a lot to be said about the misinformation, exploitation, and threat of harm associated with actually existing medical techniques in the context of profound inequity and precarity, from organ and egg harvestation, sibling donorship, paid surrogacy to medical treatments made unavailable by intellectual property regimes and made available through misleading advertising. Taylor declares: "I want to applaud the behind-the-scenes creators of these make-believe jaunts into the future of human enhancements. They really do understand what is at stake: our humanity." Note the collapse of "make-believe jaunts" into predictions of real-world futures. If only such hyperbolic projections get at the technoconstitution of "our humanity" then are we to assume that I would be wrong to focus instead, as I do, on the inequitable distribution of the costs, risks, and benefits of the effects of real-world technoscientific change on the actual lifeway diversity of humanity? Once again, for me there is a real question whether what is worst about articles on transhumanism like Taylor's and Martel's is that they distract us from actually-real actually-urgent medical and environmental and technoscience quandaries, or that they are actually symptomatic reactions and loose allegorical treatments of these quandaries that distort our understanding of their stakes and problems by deranging our factual understanding of their capacities and investing them with irrational fears and fantasies. But for me there is no question that they do little good.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Metamansplaination

I still await the Philosophy that is more than Mansplaining.

More Faulty Ivory Towers here.

Rogue Stateless

Precarization is a terrorism, multinational plutocracy one more terror-network.

More Dispatches from Libertopia here.

Friday, December 27, 2013

Fair And Unbalanced

Impressive end-of-year listicle in mainstream political vehicle The Week summarizing The 13 Craziest, Most Offensive Things Said By Politicians in 2013 actually devotes twelve of its slots to deserving Republicans. Hell, given that Bob Filner was a Democrat I'm not sure I wouldn't have offered my own party a second spot beyond the apt Weiner crazytown nod.

Sanewashing Robotcultists Twittepitome

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Rip Her To Shreds



Eric says it's apt.

I Guess That Explains the Pining For Cognitive Enhancement...

Okay, I'll admit I am still a bit shocked just how many sooper-genius "tech intellectuals" declare my writing "too long, didn't read" -- "too dense to understand" -- "bad" and "convoluted" because the sentences are long and the statements qualified -- obviously trying to be "impressive" with all my "big words" and "hifalutin' phrasing" -- and so on. May I say, I am not particularly interested in impressing anyone who thinks I use "big words"? And that if you are the sort of person who doesn't have the patience to read my writing, I can't say I find it a particularly cutting criticism that you didn't read all of it or even much of it? If you want to read People magazine, you should read People magazine, there are plenty of fine and edifying things to be found in People magazine. But you're not an intellectual, not even a "tech intellectual," properly so-called, if you really cannot puzzle your way through my dense prose, and you're not capable of grasping indispensable qualifications and complexities of technodevelopmental questions either. You think you understand consciousness and you can't understand my writing? Seriously, bro? Certainly there are better, clearer writers out there on these questions than I am -- but neither are they writing for People magazine nor will they find me so baffling as all that. Some things are hard, sometimes the difficulty of hard reading helps you distance yourself from facile commonplaces that shouldn't be so easy when it comes to it.

Technology. Will. Change. Everything. Something. Nothing.

One day a technology was developed that really did change everything, and as a result, naturally enough, not one of the technology journalists said it will change everything for once.

At Business Insider, Dylan Love declares, "Transhumanism Will Change Everything." I cannot tell you how many people have pushed the link at me to this little piece of techno-utopian agitprop so conventional it hurts. There is, of course, no more hoary futurological cliché than a pop-tech journalist declaring that some new gew-gaw Will. Change. Everything. Hence my little opening parable. The latest landfill-destined crap handheld will sweep the consumer world and cling to every breast, some highly qualified result from a medical research laboratory will yield a perfectly efficacious immortalizing treatment against aging, the Segway will change the way we think of cities. You know how these things go. Sometimes the lab result finds its way into a therapy that saves some more lives more affordably, sometimes the handheld device turns out to be popular for a season. More often than not nothing more comes of it than anything else comes to something epochal.

Is this what it means To. Change. Everything? Is it possible To. Change. Everything. without seeming To. Change. Anything. of our lived experience of everything? It takes two minutes to read a hyperbolic pop-tech piece promoting a slick-seeming gizmo, painting a roseate picture of nano-magic to come, megaphoning a technocolor warning about an asteroid impact leveling Metropolis, and we swallow the red-hot, the sour, the sweet, and the sensation is gone before the crinkly wrapper has drifted to ground to poison the planet just a bit more. Who honestly expects insight from a quick turn at the Tilt-A-Whirl?

Dylan Love says that transhumanism is "real" and that it is "already happening." The closest he comes to defining this real and already happening "transhumanism" is when he says, "Humans are augmenting themselves with computers and technology that will expand their abilities, and it's going to get more advanced… as time passes." That's not a very good definition, of course, but I think it is very fine as an evocation of transhumanism.

For example, the phrase "computers and technology" is enormously salient. Strictly speaking, the whole field of technique and artifice is "technology" in potential, but the discourse of technology always only circumscribes this field, selecting some technique and artifice as "technological" while naturalizing the rest. Historically speaking, different things will count as "technology" than at other times. "Technology discourse" adjudicates the "familiar" and the "unfamiliar," the "customary" and the "disruptive," the "political" and the "de-politicized." Usually, that artifice which is discursively produced as "the technological" will be especially redolent with fears and fantasies of agency, defined in our own moment with the polar opposition of transcendental dreams of omnipotence (sublime consumption, anti-aging, hitting the jackpot, total information awareness) and apocalyptic dread of impotence (precarity, obsolescence, pandemic, WMD, climate catastrophe). Computers are subsumed within technology, but Love's phrase "computers and technology" aptly delineates the transhumanoid's particular fetishism of the computational as the paradigmatic technology, the lens through which to think the logic of technologization, the burning bush invested with techno-transcendental aspirations. Transhumanism dreams of dream computers that are smart, imperishable, omnicompetent, and made of spirit stuff -- that is to say, transhuman "computers" are not really very much like the dumb, frustrating, badly behaving, already obsolescing, energy-hogging, toxic computers in the real world, and hence the "technology" figured through them is more idiosyncratic than you might expect if you are unwary about it.

Another thing I like about Love's formulation is just how quick he is to say that "humans are augmenting themselves" with "computers and technology" and "expand their abilities" (that he says "themselves" and "their" instead of "ourselves" and "our" is worth noting, since we are reading for transhumanoidal symptoms here) and "going to get more advanced": Of course, the fact of the matter is that technodevelopmental vicissitudes have a diversity of stakeholders. And the costs, risks, and benefits of change are always different according to the situations of stakeholders. And these costs, risks, and benefits are, in any case, never distributed equitably. Not to mention the fact that even for those stakeholders who accomplish wanted outcomes their achievement is purchased at the cost of other outcomes they might have been better off wanting instead. In other words, such transhumanoid promotional narratives of technological change as insistent, unqualified augmentation, enhancement, capacitation, amplification, progress, transcension are always radical oversimplifications. Usually these oversimplifications get much more wrong than they get right, and almost always, I should add, in ways that serve elite-incumbent interests, making them reaction clothed in progressive wonderment, making our grasp even of what they get right less useful than it might otherwise be, actively discouraging sensitivity to alternatives, inequities, complexities. In other words, these futurological frames are making us much more stupid in the very moment they offer up assertions congratulating themselves on their superior understanding.

This insistence that the substance of technology is illuminated by a fetishizing derangement of computation, this insistence that the substance of emancipation is the amplification of reactionary elite-incumbency, this insistence that the substance of technological enlightenment is an anti-intellectual repudiation of history and complexity is indeed a fine epitome of the substance of the transhuman discourse on technology.

Here is what looks to me like the transhumanoid money quote. Love writes:
Imagine transplanting your entire consciousness into a computer. That's a new type of immortality. Imagine having a robotic exoskeleton that's not just part of your body -- it is your body. That's a new type of existence entirely.
Five claims. Each one of them I have encountered countless times in futurological precincts. Preliminary forms of these claims were a commonplace in the OMNI magazine I read as a teenaged science fiction fanboy in the late seventies and early eighties. Already by the early nineties I could read their unalloyed faith-based futurological variations in pop-tech zines and online while I was subscribed to the Extropian mailing list. Now they are repeated endlessly every day in bestselling popular science (!?) volumes and in TED Talks and BigThink "Thought Leader" guruwannabe twaddle. Their mechanical predictability never interferes with the tonalities of wondrous novelty in which they are breathlessly uttered, any more than their perfect incoherence and vacuity interferes with the smug raiment of the mansplaining sooper-genius they inevitably, solemnly don.

Every one of these claims is perfectly typical of transhumanist discourse. And nearly every one is nonsensical and reactionary. Let's cover them, one by one. It'll be fun.

"Imagine transplanting your entire consciousness into a computer," Love begins. Of course, we can only imagine such a thing because nothing remotely like it can be observed since such a thing cannot be done. But there is a deeper perplexity at hand. Are you sure you actually can even imagine such a thing? Are you sure that cannot be done only implies cannot yet be done? What we are being asked to imagine is a "transplantation" of consciousness into a computer. This is a metaphor, you know. Are we quite sure "consciousness" is the sort of phenomenon that can be "transplanted" in the first place? Transhumanoids like to pretend that only spiritualists would raise such an objection, but even materialists about consciousness, like materialists about red wagons, are not forced by their materialism to believe of each material thing that it can do everything every other material thing does. In fact, very obviously, very much to the contrary. Materialists about red wagons take seriously the material differences between red wagons and damp sand piles as no small part of the seriousness of their materialism. If consciousness happened to be a perspectival effect through which we grasp some of the dynamic electrochemical dispositions in the biological brain and bodily-dispersed nervous system it is no small thing to declare such a material phenomenon "transplantable" in the way a comparatively stolid discreet organ like a kidney might be transplanted from one body into another. Is "metabolism" transplantable? Are we sure this metaphor is an apt one, an actually clarifying one?

And what is Love meaning to evoke with his qualification of "consciousness" as "entire consciousness"? Is he insisting -- as anyone should but as few champions of artificial intelligence seem to do when talking of consciousness -- that we should understand the whole richly non-rationalizable field of evolutionary vestiges and tics, random firings, arbitrarily reinforced associations, mappings, sensations, perceptions, introspections, extrospections, interospections, recollections, feelings, moods, conscious thoughts, unconscious symptoms, analytic methods as consciousness? If so, does that field look much to anybody like a transplantable organ anymore? And I daresay you will have noticed that organs get transplanted from one body into another body which is, you know, a body. A computer isn't a body. Computers are not conscious, they are not intelligent, they are not even -- billions of advertising dollars to the contrary notwithstanding -- smart. Even if consciousness is a material phenomenon (and I am among the ones who is happy to think so) it is quite flabbergasting to declare the intelligence investing biological bodies and brains can be "transplanted" into a red wagon or a computer which are not, after all, material in their materiality the way bodies and brains are. Sure, there is a deep cultural archive of clay figures, wooden puppets, mechanical automatons narratively invested with thoughts of their own, bespeaking deep fascinations and yearnings and fears of makers with what we make, and as a cultural and literary theorist I take the citation and appropriation of these archetypes enormously seriously, as I also take seriously the figurative operations of metaphor: but part of what it means to take these things seriously is to grasp the ways in which they are not, for example, testable hypotheses or logical entailments or coherent definitions. The brain isn't a computer. A picture or scan or profile of a person is not a person: Pretending otherwise about these things is not a royal road to understanding complex phenomena like consciousness, intelligence, or personhood, but is exactly as foolish the deeper you go as it obviously is on the surface of things.

"That's a new type of immortality," Love declares of the "transplantation" of the "entire consciousness" into a "computer." Now, I won't belabor the point that this imaginary transplant operation, being nonsensical on the face of it, can scarcely be immortalizing of all things, any more than squaring a circle is immortalizing. Saying otherwise is rather like inventing a black box nobody can open but promising your heart's desire is inside. Religion does this sort of thing all the time, no better way to get asses in the pew, dollars in the collection plate, eyeballs for your website, amiright? But I will add that even if it did make any kind of sense to pretend that transplanting, migrating, translating, uploading (all of these metaphors are commonplace variations of your basic techno-immortalizing digi-utopian flim-flam operation) consciousness from biological brains "into" "onto" computers, networks, software, digital scans, virtual realities, and so on (and, no, it doesn't make any kind of sense), it should also matter at least a little that none of our computers, networks, software, digital scans, virtual realities, and so on are immortal themselves, now, are they? In my experience, legible conscious intelligent human selves tend to last far longer than our fragile, brittle, crufty, embarrassing, error-prone, rapidly obsolescing programs and devices do. Who in their right mind, witnessing a computer crash, a broken link, a text rendered gibberish by getting left behind too many software updates, a pixelation wave sweeping across digital media, or a landfill piled high with crushed desktop carapaces and shattered screens thinks to themselves: man, upload me into that and I'll live forever!?! The answer is: nobody in their right mind would ever think such a thing. It is the work of transhuman discourse to make such nonsense seem commonsensical, usually as a way to facilitate the irrational denial of human finitude (the facts of human vulnerability, mortality, unintended consequences, and proneness to error, miscommunication, and humiliation), and often in the service (instead or as well as) rationalizations for the ongoing or increasing authority and capacity of incumbent elites. If that still seems to you smart, or wise, or emancipatory, there isn't much I can say to teach you otherwise.

To continue Love's little transhumanoid soliloquy, he writes (nicely paralleling his anti-intellectual thought-experiment about techno-immortalizing AI): "Imagine having a robotic exoskeleton that's not just part of your body -- it is your body. That's a new type of existence entirely." The first thing to notice about this exhortation to imagination is that while the first was actually trying to conjure a nonsensical image (consciousness as a discrete whole like an organ, and also the biological "transplanted" into the non-biological) this second exhortation is conjuring the commonplace -- We need not imagine but only recollect such "exoskeletons": for crutches, splints, harnesses, even elaborate articulated remotely-teleoperated mechanisms exist across centuries and disciplines, from the cast on a kid's broken arm to a military drone targeting the heat signature of a civilian in our War on Terror to a doctor examining a new virus strain in a sealed suit. As I have already mentioned the field of artifice and technique, strictly speaking, includes much we have grown too familiar with to consider the technological in everyday parlance, but have naturalized like our language, our body language, our skills and our scars. When Love insists that our techniques are "your body" (again, not "our," you have to notice: one really should take care to read the interesting pronoun choices when often body-loathing, often socially-alientated transhumanists are doing their thing), he seems to be making what I concede is a crucial point: Judith Butler, for example, has devoted a lifetime of difficult deliberation to "the body" that is always really "the socially legible body," about the constrained and yet improvisatory public performances through which this "body" and its "legibility" as such are maintained, insisting that even though "the bodily" tends to be experienced as "prediscursive," and in ways that naturalize all sorts of catastrophic conventions, this is always an historically situated, absolutely discursive production of a politically provocative and useful prediscursivity, an entirely discursive prediscursivity. But why on earth does Love immediately follow this critical insight with the added insistence that this "[i]s a new type of existence entirely." Notice, for one thing, that "entirely" has returned again. Transhumanism is nothing if not a totalizing set of claims, else it could not elicit so well a membership keen to "sweep the world" with its Movement, else it could not evoke so well the transcendentalizing aspirations that seduce its faithful...

But when Weiner asked if the old man's cane is not part of the person the old man had come to be and then founded cybernetics he knew very well (as very few who seem to have been shaped by his discourse seem to do) that his question was older than written philosophy. He turned to the European "ancients" not only for the coinage of the name of his field but to frame its insights. If, as I have said already, all culture is prosthetic and all prostheses are culture, it is actually nothing new (if still crucial) to say that persons are articulated in their intercourse with and through artifice. And, I might add, given that our cultural performances are always multiple and fragmentary, as well as improvised within their constraints, "entirely" isn't exactly the best word to capture these fraught ongoing open-futural re-elaborations of inter-personal agency that have always been the work of multiculture. All of this is human, certainly it is more human than post-human or trans-human or whatevhuman neologism the futurologists have seized upon for the moment. Dylan genuflects at criticism by declaring "transhumanism" also to be "spooky" and "morally complex," but the celebratory thrust of his piece is clear, and in any case it isn't really more usefully critical to declare the nonsensical "spooky" rather than "awesome" when it comes to it -- both functionally seek to legitimize the unserious by conjuring two cartoonish "sides" debating nonsense in some clown college somewhere. The transhuman/techbrotarian insistence on the disruptive novelty of these commonplaces is of a piece with the re-packaging as exciting and new (and hence still-profitable for elite-incumbents) of stale consumer products by the marketing discourse of which the futurological represents the clarifying extreme form, sometimes the reductio ad absurdum.

I hope that our "business insider" (one wonders) Dylan Love will forgive me, as I hope all the countless enthusiastic white techbros who have liked and linked and favorited and alerted me to this piece will also forgive me, when I say that all this novelty they are promoting is better described as cliché, that all this sophistication they are promoting is better described as infantile, that all this wonder they are promoting is driven by dread, that all this promise they are promoting looks like con-artistry, that all this emancipatory capacitation they are promoting blinds us to the reality of the political and historical substance of freedom, that all this technological progress they are promoting serves the most elite-incumbent reactionary politics imaginable.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

25th Anniversary of Pee Wee's Christmas Special

Let's Hope It's A Good One

As every year, Happy Christmas (War Is Over)

Christmas Effects by Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick

What’s “queer?” Here’s one train of thought about it. The depressing thing about the Christmas season -- isn’t it? -- is that it’s the time when all the institutions are speaking with one voice. The Church says what the Church says. But the State says the same thing: maybe not (in some ways it hardly matters) in the language of theology, but in the language the State talks: legal holidays, long school hiatus, special postage stamps, and all. And the language of commerce more than chimes in, as consumer purchasing is organized ever more narrowly around the final weeks of the calendar year, the Dow Jones aquiver over Americans’ “holiday mood.” The media, in turn, fall in triumphally behind the Christmas phalanx: ad-swollen magazines have oozing turkeys on the cover, while for the news industry every question turns into the Christmas question -- Will hostages be free for Christmas? What did that flash flood or mass murder (umpty-ump people killed and maimed) do to those families’ Christmas? And meanwhile, the pairing “families/Christmas” becomes increasingly tautological, as families more and more constitute themselves according to the schedule, and in the endlessly iterated image, of the holiday itself constituted in the image of "the" family.

The thing hasn’t, finally, so much to do with propaganda for Christianity as with propaganda for Christmas itself. They all -- religion, state, capital, ideology, domesticity, the discourses of power and legitimacy -- line up with each other so neatly once a year, and the monolith so created is a thing one can come to view with unhappy eyes. What if instead there were a practice of valuing the ways in which meanings and institutions can be at loose ends with each other? What if the richest junctures weren’t the ones where everything means the same thing? -- Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Tendencies, Duke University Press, 1993, pp. 5-6
This memorable passage for me turns out to have been memorable for lots of folks I've talked with about Sedgwick, too. Today seemed a good day to provide the occasion for it to be memorable to others as well. Also, let it stand as something of a memorial to a scholar who mattered to me when mattering like she did mattered a lot.

Comments on Bruce Sterling's Slashdot Interview

I love how reliably down to earth Sterling always gets around to being over the long-term. I suspect the ecstatic bursts of hyperbole and overgeneralization that happen in between moments like this are really performance parodies of the public-relations discourse futurism always is and science fiction itself is always threatened/seduced by. Such moments are Sterling's way of being a Twain for today. Read the whole thing, as always, but I do have my favorite bits:

Speaking of the presumably "prophetic" Orwell, Sterling makes the crucial point:
[S]cience fiction... [is] derived from events... genuinely going on in real life. Only people didn't talk about them much in polite society. The readers hadn't caught on yet. Then readers come along, periodically, some decades later, and they're like: "Hey! This comprehensive police-state surveillance is just like George Orwell's 1984!" It is, pretty much, except that "1984" is based on the real police state surveillance that George Orwell knew a lot about in 1948. In 1948, there was tons of surveillance and torture and doublethink going on. In Russia, mostly, but, well, not only.
No end of nonsense derives from the misconception that Science Fiction is a pseudo-scientific predictive exercise in anticipating "The Future" rather than, like all literature, a powerful commentary on the present. When it is great literature, it might be taken up by subsequent presents than the present it derives from, sure, and come in being taken up by them to comment on those presents as well, but that is exactly as true of great literature that isn't science fiction. It is worth noting that in my accounting of it, even the future, strictly speaking isn't reall about "The Future," that is to say, I believe that futurity properly so-called is the quality of openness in the present that is sustained by the diversity of stakeholders who share and make it. Frankly, I have always regarded "The Future" is always pronounced from a rather impoverished and parochial vantage within that present-diversity and then projected and amplified in an aggressive and cowardly and mean projection way the better to prevail over that diversity and foreclose futurity. That's why I say that every futurism is always a retro-futurism.

In answer to the question "[w]hat film best represents your vision of a cyberpunk or high-tech dystopian future?" Sterling seemed to me to be pretty withering:
[F]orget about "the movies." Abstract motion-graphics coded in Processing and posted on Vimeo, that's "cyberpunk." You don't wanna make movies that are about guys with computers. You want to use digital composition to seize control of the means of producing cinema. And then do it all yourself! That's "punk." Hollywood product is commerce, it's about fanboy culture.
I do not think his reiterated emphasis on specifically patriarchal distraction/derangement from useful critical technoscience practice/theory in his identification of "fanboy culture" about "movies... about guys with computers" is the least bit accidental. By the way, I don't think Sterling means to denigrate the pleasures of cultural and literary fandoms any more than I do in making this sort of point, it is just that he doesn't confuse mass consumption as organized politics or political analysis and this simply can't be said enough if you care about the latter. Anyway, the patriarchal point recurs later on when he deflects a question premised on the eclipse of "hard SF towards science fiction focused on relationships and societies" by being rather plainly right-on-with-his-right-on:
We've gone away from science because our whole society's gone away from science. We're in a science-hostile society now, it's politically dominated by Creationists and climate denialists... The other stuff, about "focused on relationships and societies," that's a code term for noticing that women are the major creative figures in fantastic print fiction nowadays. Dude, you bet they are. Hunger Games, Harry Potter, Twilight, man, that stuff made an absolute mint. Those huge commercial successes by women writers are practically the only things keeping bookstores open nowadays.
Apart from Bruce Sterling himself, I'll admit I rarely read science fiction that isn't by women these days, and I'm clearly not the only one. I mean, I do read and enjoy some guys who are writing now, don't get me wrong, but there is definitely a different mix now than when I became a passionate reader of sf in high school, in the early 80s, say. I don't want to start putting words in Sterling's mouth, or anything, so go read the interview yourself. In closing I'll just say that my own fanboy news item takeaway from the interview was Sterling saying that my favorite of his novels Holy Fire has been optioned by a movie company. Doesn't mean it'll happen, of course, but that's a movie I'd like to see even if it sucks.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Universals

Philosophers are right to declare universals indispensable, but philosophers are wrong to spend so much time trying to tell us what these are rather than listening for what they are becoming.

More Faulty Ivory Towers here.

Unrelated, Belated

Students, I find, are unalive to deadlines.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Techbros Disrupt Hollywood!

"Her" (2013) / "Electric Dreams" (1984)
"Transcendence" (2014) / "Lawnmower Man" (1992)

The examples can be deliriously multiplied -- by all means, offer your favorite pairings of disruptive cliches with their previous (usually better) versions in the Moot. I almost feel I should stipulate that classic episodes of Star Trek (esp TOS) and the Twilight Zone and the Outer Limits that have been subsequently fluffed into bad movies not be included, because the examples are so legion that I fear my friend JimF will spend his holiday documenting the atrocities instead of taking a well-deserved break! But, whatevs, have at it, anything goes.

Strongly Agree!

Twitterversal Transhumanism

At this point people append the tag #transhumanism to anything even remotely sf or tech related, however hoary. Who knew the term could get even more useless?

Funny Not-Funny

It's funny how skepticism, criticism, and demands for equity-in-diversity are castigated as "negativity," as if the "positivity" of credulity, acquiescence, inequity, and conformity yields positive results for any but incumbent elites.

Friday, December 20, 2013

I'm Dreaming of a Cat Proof Sofa...

Do such things affordably exist? I mean precarious adjunct academic affordable, not bullshit Gwyneth Paltrow aspirational. That an attainable catproof couch might even be stylish... it seems a kind of dream. Anybody have any recommendations? Surely there are millions of people in my situation, isn't fucking capitalism supposed to good at this sort of thing in partial compensation for all the, you know, evil and stuff?


Dumb Dvorsky Declares Fanboy Disageekments With Him About The Singularity To Be "Lies"

In a recent article (of faith), George Dvorsky admits up front that "the singularity" is nebulous. And indeed, it is astonishing how contested (and how fervently) that futurological buzzword is given how few people actually take it seriously when you come to think of it.

Nevertheless, Dvorsky has decided that those whose singularitarian loose talk differs from his own are engaging in "lies." That's rather odd, isn't it? Futurists who use the term singularity to denote their wish-fulfillment fantasy of a techno-immortalizing life-extension breakthrough instead of the wish-fulfillment fantasy Dvorsky prefers about AI breakthroughs delivering Robot Gods unto the world are muddying the waters, confusing the issues. Ray Kurzweil, a futurological guru incomparably more influential than Dvorsky is or will likely ever manage to be (even if I quite agree with Dvorsky that he has been a very silly fellow indeed since he stopped inventing things and starting writing vapid deceptive pop-tech bestsellers), is described in his disagreements with George to be "particularly guilty." Guilty, now, is it? Telling lies about "The Singularity," eh? Does Dvorsky mean that people are saying they believe things about the non-existing "singularity" that they don't really believe? Does he mean that he or that they have actually traveled to "The Future" and lived through a techno-transcendental or otherwise robo-apocalytic singularity but are giving false testimony as to what transpired for some nefarious purpose?

It is a quality of open futurity -- that is to say the openness inhering in the present in consequence of the ineradicable diversity of stakeholders collaborating in the making and sharing of that present as it emerges onto the next present -- that actions have unintended consequences and yield unpredictable effects. To the extent that the singularity names that futural uncertainty, but, only, you know, like Extreme! 'cuz we're, like, bleeding edge techbros or what have you I cannot say that the notion has ever seemed to me more clarifying than obfuscating (except, I'm afraid, as a symptom in the therapeutic/ethnographic senses).

To the extent that singularity is meant to name a hypothesized moment when nonbiological artificial intelligence becomes "superintelligent" (and do please note all the contestable assumptions about what intelligence is or what it is good for that get stealthed away in bald oh-so-innocent assertions of "greater than" "less than"), I am afraid the term is bedeviled for me by my sense that few of those who are inclined to use the term in that way have a clear grasp of the actually-existing biologically-incarnated discursively-situated multi-dimensional phenomena of intelligence as such in the first place to repay any turn of our attention instead to their loose talk of artificial intelligence, super-intelligence, smart devices, and the rest. Indeed, you will forgive me if I admit I sometimes think the raising of the specter of "singularity" functions more often than not as a way to continue to talk about AI in what now seem to me fatally inadequate and incoherent ways by distracting the attention of possible critics from the debased state of the discourse onto wish-fulfillment fantasies premised on these inadequate and incoherent assumptions but loudly, splashily, hyperbolically projected into "The Future"!

There are of course endlessly many enormously interesting things to say technically, economically, politically, ethnographically about particular interactions -- prevailing, emerging, idiosyncratic -- between techniques and artifacts and norms and practices in people, communities, locations, positionalities, and so on. "Singularitarian" discussions of human intelligence "superseded" in some way by artificial intelligence, or "melding" in some way with artificial intelligence, or "evanescing" in some way into ubiquitous intelligence and so on (metaphors of accumulation, acceleration, convergence, disruption are all over singularitarian discourses, too, each framing techno-transcendentalizing cases differently in ways one could dig into rhetorically) has always seemed to me far too vacuous to exert much interest, except occasionally as a literary conceit (and one at this point so hoary it takes an awfully good writer to pull off the move). While those who indulge in this sort of hand-waving seem to take themselves enormously seriously when they are doing so, I'm afraid it seems to me they are not saying anything of substance or with specificity at all -- and worse that their talk functions to evacuate substance and specificity where it might otherwise occur, that it forms a barrier actively warding off substance and specificity whenever it occurs.

"The onslaught of Moore's Law appears to be unhindered, while breakthroughs in brainmapping and artificial intelligence continue apace. There are no insurmountable conceptual or technological hurdles awaiting us," declares Dvorsky rather brashly, offering us the standard Robot Cult boilerplate one would hear from extropians word for word twenty years ago... how's that for accelerating change? how's that for techbro disruption? As the transhumanoid Robot Cultist George Dvorsky proudly admits himself to be, it is no surprise, I suppose, that his own articles of faith have come to assume the force of revealed truths the denial of which seem like "lies" for him to condemn. One expects this sort of thing from faith-based zealots.

And yet, here outside the online sanctuaries of faith-based techno-transcendence, "brain mapping" doesn't equal AI or render AI inevitable in the least: As it happens, a picture of a brain isn't intelligent however detailed it gets any more than a picture of you is you even if it fools somebody for a moment that it might be. Likewise, as it happens, Moore's Law won't spit out an AI any more than an accumulating sand pile or even an accumulating pile of abacuses will spit out an AI, spontaneously, and in any case it is a tricky business declaring Moore's Law is even still in play in stricto sensu even now given the creaky state of the art in the computer industry, really, and that quite apart from the wrinkle Lanier pointed out already way back at the height of irrational techbro exuberance (namely: "As processors become faster and memory becomes cheaper, software becomes correspondingly slower and more bloated, using up all available resources."), not to mention that it is outright incoherent to pretend that any such generalization won't hit hard limits in a finite universe in which our understanding of physics is even approximately true. What can I say? Oh, George!

All that aside, I will conclude, however, by pointing out the profoundly pernicious suggestion by Dvorsky that critics like me who notice that there is no such thing as "the singularity" and that the state of computer science and discourses about intelligence don't seem the least bit to be verging on managing to create an intelligent non-biological entity (whatever marvelous helpful secure use-friendly software and network apps they do manage to create), indeed, critics like me who notice that those who seem to believe otherwise often seem to talk about the phenomenon of intelligence in frankly embarrassingly facile and incoherent ways, that singularity critics like in are engaging in so doing in a kind of "singularity denialism." How can you deny God when the Kingdom of Heaven is all around you, gets at the spirit of the thing as it looks from here (as a cheerful nonjudgmental atheist of many decades I've heard a lot of this sort of thing, you know). In describing the singularity as an "existential threat" and skeptics about singularitarian discourse as "denialists" it seems to me that Dvorsky is plainly analogizing those who do not embrace his faith-based futurological fantasies with anthropogenic climate change denialists, benighted ignoramuses endangering the survival of people around the world with our foolish incredulity. It is hard to know where to begin to respond to such an outrageous analogy, if such is Dvorsky's intention here. Even singularitarians would surely not try to pretend that "the singularity" is happening in the way the consensus of climate scientists overwhelmingly agree that anthropogenic climate change is happening? Scientific understanding of the phenomenon of human intelligence is, to say the least, unfinished -- and although there are enormously important gaps in our understanding of the atmosphere, geosphere, local ecosystems, their interactions, and so on, I couldn't say with confidence that our understanding of intelligence approaches yet the richness of our environmental sciences. To analogize singularity to climate catastrophe draws on an assumed prior sense of the urgency of the latter with which Dvorsky wants to invest the latter -- which is outrageous to the extent that futurological existential risk discourse about robocalypse, nanogoo, asteroid impacts, futuristic WMD and so on as promulgated by corporate-military think-tanks thronged by futurologists function to distracts attention and resources away from precisely the urgent problem of catastrophic climate change and resource descent onto hyperbolic rationalizations for profitable military R&D. And don't get me started on the futurological faux-green bullshit of "geo-engineering" profitable megascale corporate-military boondoggles in which bad actors acting badly will save the world they have destroyed by continuing to act the same way, but, you know, for kids! It is well known that religious fundamentalists pining for the end-times don't always exactly make the best allies in the work to educate, agitate, organize, legislate ways to solve out shared environmental problems and propose sustainable alternatives. Market fundamentalists, futurological fundamentalists (and it is worth noting that there is considerable overlap between those two cohorts) who think it is cute to compare robocalypse skeptics with climate change deniers reveal themselves no more reliable as allies in the work technoscientifically literate can contribute to real progress in the real world.

Misfit

I think it's fair to say I'm just too ranty for the academics and just too academic for the ranters who are my most natural audiences.

MundiMuster! Upcoming California Ballot Measure To Reduce Most Nonviolent Crimes From Felonies to Misdemeanors

Marisa Lagos in SFGATE:
San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón filed a ballot measure Thursday that would reduce most nonviolent crimes -- such as petty theft and drug possession -- from felonies to misdemeanors and use the money saved on prisons to fund crime prevention, trauma recovery services, and mental health and substance abuse treatment. Fresh off last year's victory for Proposition 36, which severely curbed the state's harsh "three strikes" law by exempting most nonviolent offenders, supporters believe voters will do what lawmakers and the governor have been unwilling to do... In addition to shifting possession of drugs for personal use to a misdemeanor, the proposal raises the monetary threshold for theft-related felonies from $450 to $950. Gascón said the increase "tightens up an area of law that hasn't been adjusted for inflation," for two decades. He and other supporters believe that voters are sick of "throwing money away" on incarcerating people who don't pose a risk of violence... The latest measure, which was filed with the state Thursday and will need about 500,000 signatures to qualify for the November ballot... The $150 million to $250 million in estimated annual savings would be earmarked for programs that lawmakers could not change: The bulk, 65 percent, would be used for mental health and substance abuse treatment programs aimed at reducing recidivism. Another 25 percent would go to crime prevention and support programs in K-12 schools. The final 10 percent would go toward trauma recovery services for crime victims. Barry Krisberg, a senior fellow and lecturer at UC Berkeley Law School who helped advise the measures' authors... said the ballot measure, if enacted, would result in "significant declines in the number of people in state prison," which appears to be what voters want. He said he expects to see more proposals like this around the nation. "There appears to be tremendous support for the ideas in this proposal," said Krisberg. "The question is, can they get it on the ballot? (Collecting signatures) takes a lot of money. But if it was on the ballot, based on the polling data I have seen, it would pass overwhelmingly."
I haven't found a website facilitating signature collection or other education and organizing for this ballot measure yet -- clearly this is in the early stages. I'll post a link when I do, and if you are as interested in this as I am you might want to check in at the San Francisco Attorney General's Official Website occasionally for the latest news on this, as will I.

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.

Charles Stross on Libertechbro Bitcoin Flim-Flammery

Of course, bitcoin is just warmed over 90s libertechbro cryptoanarchy. Here are some sections of my dissertation written a damn decade ago -- a close reading of Tim May's crytoanarchic nonsense (with a little Clay Shirky and Dorothy Denning nonsense sprinkled in), and a close reading of Eric Hughes' cryptoanarchic nonsense as well. For me the money (as it were) quote in the Stross takedown comes from the comments: A lot of people who should know better seem to think it's a good thing. Cryptoanarchic precincts were of course continuous with extropian transhumanoid futurological precincts -- no death! no taxes! Never forget that millennial market fundamentalists all came from cyberspace home of "Mine!" We've spent a generation in the smoking ruins of mercenary, deregulatory, financializing, crowdsourcing, austerian, crony libertechbrotarian schemes a lot of people who should know better still seem to think are good things. "Smart" devices that aren't, the internet of things that isn't, the 3Dfabbingnanofactorizing Revolution that isn't, the longevity enhancing therapies that won't, the geo-engineering solutions that aren't... are all unkillable zombie futurological fails the interminable successive failures of which will kill dead any future presents worth living in unless a lot of people who should know better kill them first with critique, with ridicule, and with progressive programmatic alternatives we educate, agitate, organize, and legislate on. For more on libertechbrotarian bitcoin in particular, the indispensable David Golumbia promises Bitcoing Will Eat Itself.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Open Carry Is White-Racist Patriarchy Rallying

Scary Salon.

Why Size Matters to Wingnuts

Republicans talk about Big Government and Small Government to avoid talking about Good Government and Our Government.

More Dispatches from Libertopia here.

Selective Sensitivity

Note well how few who rationalize their forced pregnancy zealotry by a tenuous suggestion of fetal pain are likewise made vegetarian by the conspicuous suffering of the slaughterhouse.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Fournier's Parallel Universe

I am not someone who takes Ron Fournier seriously, but I do find importantly symptomatic his appalling declaration that there are "a striking number of parallels between Bush's fifth year in office and the atrocious first twelve months of President Obama's second term. My takeaway: Obama needs to shatter the cycle of dysfunction (his and history's) or risk leaving office like Bush, unpopular and relatively unaccomplished."

To begin at the end, President Obama's Administration has presided over the end of two catastrophic and criminal wars originating in President Bush's supposedly parallel Administration, he presided over passage of the Affordable Care Act which expanded Medicaid to millions of precarious citizens and radically regulated the atrocious private healthcare industry, passage of the Lily Ledbetter fair pay act, over the end of Don't Ask Don't Tell and the beginning of Marriage Equality at the turning of the tide for the great civil rights struggle for queer folks in America, his American Reinvestment and Recovery Act was a rare act of macroeconomically literate Keynesian stimulus which halted the great recession and formed a bulwark against the austerian measures of Republicans and corporatist Democrats for years... if the President accomplished nothing more in the years remaining to him (which I consider unlikely) he is already enormously accomplished.

To declare Obama "relatively unaccomplished" is frankly grotesque -- relative to whom, exactly? Compared to Bush -- the comparison actually on offer in the piece -- the statement is flabbergasting, odious, laugh out loud funny, disqualifying its author from serious consideration. But quite apart from such a ridiculous exercise in false equivalence, I simply cannot understand the ease with which the commentariat more generally declares the first year of Obama's second term so evidently "atrocious."
Pundits seem stubbornly wedded, for example, to the diagnosis that Obama's foreign policy has been feckless and naive and disastrous -- when he managed to avoid a disastrous unpopular war with Syria media figures were certain was inevitable while also getting Syria to agree to destroy chemical weapons caches they hitherto would not even admit to having, when he mobilized an effective coalition in sanctions successfully to pressure Iran into negotiations over halting their nuclear program long enough to open the door to a negotiated settlement with the world for the first time in generations.

Despite serial debunkings of a whole host of ramifying non-scandals whomped up by unscrupulous Republicans from Fast and Furious, to IRS Crusades against Teabaggers, to... Benghazi! Benghazi! Benghazi! somehow these groundless acts of witch-hunting mischief are allowed to insinuate themselves into the public perception of the Administration, imbuing it with a coloration of misconduct produced entirely through the misconduct of the Republicans who make unsupported charges media outlets report indifferent to the facts for the public to adjudicate on their own who knows how.

Quite apart from ridiculous Republicans and hate radio celebrities declaring Obamacare the end of the world -- sometimes because providing the uninsured with insurance was somehow the beginning of dictatorship or the end of the world, sometimes because early problems with the website were keeping uninsured people from getting insurance was some somehow the beginning of dictatorship or the end of the world -- many "moderate" "mainstream" commentators also declares the troubled website rollout as the end of the Administration. Needless to say, a month later, the website is working better, millions are signing up... and yet the pundits and the polls are still finding reasons to declare Obama's President fatally compromised, hopelessly dysfunctional, walking wounded.

I agree that this has been a terrible year for the country -- reeling from the beginning with the Newtown school gun massacre and the refusal of Republicans to allow the most modest most widely popular common sense gun safety measures to be implemented, onward to a series of Republican dominated state legislatures passing forced pregnancy laws and contraception bans indifferent to the health and autonomy of the majority of citizens in this country who are women, to the Supreme Court's Republican appointees demolishing provisions of the Voting Rights Act on the pretense that racism is not a problem in this country anymore followed within days by Republican governors and legislators in state after state after state immediately implementing poll taxes and voter restrictions to disenfranchise minority voters, to a Republican government shutdown over the inevitable implementation of the Affordable Care Act, through to the refusal of Republicans to allow a vote on comprehensive immigration reform in the House, again despite the urgency of the problem and the popularity of reform.

When Fournier offers up his smug "takeaway" that Obama needs to "shatter the cycle of dysfunction" in Washington he is blaming the President for the intransigently irresponsible misconduct of the Republicans. To insist that Obama "do something" in this situation is literally to demand that the President be magical. To condemn him for the sins of others is to collaborate in those sins. Fournier's exercise in false equivalence and impossible demands is just an extreme variation of corporate media narratives of the Obama Presidency more generally.

It is to this outrageous misconduct that I would attribute Obama's low poll numbers for the moment -- the American people need to understand why the mandate they delivered the President and Congressional Democrats (Democrats, recall, received millions more votes than Republicans even in House races, as much as deliberate gerrymandering it is the inherent disproportion of rural/suburban representation over urban representation that accounts for the Republican majority there) has not translated to the implementation of urgently necessary and enormously popular jobs bills, infrastructure spending, taxing of the wealthy, regulation of the banks, comprehensive immigration reform, an end to war adventuring, and common sense gun safety measures. The demonstrably and even obviously true answer to that question is unprecedented Republican obstructionism is standing in the way of American priorities. The commentariat in refusing to tell that true story has chosen, whether it admits this or not, to collaborate in Republican deceptions -- while congratulating itself on its fidelty in so doing to a truth-telling reduced to reporting faithfully what the actors say indifferent to the actual truth of what they say.

A Joyful Noise: Paying Tribute to Hall and Oates

Mary Beth Williams celebrates Hall of Famers Hall and Oates in Salon today. I'm a fan and endorse such a celebration, but I found Williams' tone curiously defensive, and I wondered at the extent to which she seemed to regard their stature a problem to be justified less through their own accomplishments than by locating in relation to less problematically acclaimed work. I honestly didn't quite realize how uncool it is to think Hall and Oates cool until I read Williams' eulogy. She raises the specter of Hall and Oates being "the musical equivalent of mom jeans," for heaven's sake! It seems to me that there is something about the unique induction conjunction of Nirvana and Hall and Oates that makes celebration of the artistry and force of the latter a scene of such agonies. But great music does greatness differently. It's a point Williams gets around to making herself, but she seems unsure of its legitimating force when it comes to Hall and Oates. "[T]he heart wants what it wants," she declares defiantly from the start, consigning the duo to the campy schlock of the guilty pleasure. May I say that I, for one, feel no guilt in the pleasures I take in listening to Hall and Oates? To be honest, guilt spices my pleasures in Nirvana, more like. Oh, well, some things, I guess, are better left unsaid.


I am at best ambivalent about the blunt assignment by Williams of "Blue Eyed Soul" to Hall and Oates (not least because John Oates has brown eyes), especially as an initial framing of the duo. I think the co-construction of categories of race as well as of the popular, the populace, the people at the site of "pop music" through its fraught relations of citation, of appropriation, of mass distribution, and of identification/dis-identification, is simply too complex and too important for such a sledghammer of designation to illuminate much. How insane would it be to designate Sly and the Family Stone "Blue Eyed Soul"? To be reminded by Williams of generations of hip hop sampling from Hall and Oates mega-hits, hell, to hear that "I Can't Go for That" was a key influence on "Billie Jean" is just a preliminary indication of this complexity. On a related note, I am also ambivalent about the proposal that "Rich Girl" is a neglected class warfare anthem (it's a great song, and I agree that its lyrics are very fine), especially when one hears that the inspiration for the song was a rich guy. In this displacement, perhaps, we find an early intimation of the troubled premise of "Maneater" (a song of theirs I happen to dislike on many levels, though ymmv).

Williams is right to say that "[s]mashes like 'Kiss on My List,' 'You Make My Dreams,' 'Out of Touch' and 'Say It Isn’t So' ...are unapologetic pop songs, all shivery vocals and Motown-inflected harmonies and silliness." But I can't agree that the consummate effortlessness of their form "makes it so easy to dismiss them": do we say the same of "She Loves You" and "All You Need Is Love?" Let me make this point plain (and risk my own charge of legitimating Hall and Oates by association with others whose legitimacy is not in doubt): It seems to me that "Kiss On My List" and "I Wanna Hold Your Hand" are precise correlates, melodically, lyrically, thematically, and that both are brilliant.

Williams is right to say that
music doesn’t have to be broody or tortured or pissed off to be pretty damn great. Happiness is authentic too. And the irrepressible melodies of Hall & Oates endure because they achieve something unique. They nod to the lushness of Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound; they riff on traditional soul but refuse to pledge full allegiance to it. They shine. When you hear a song like “One On One,” you get that they’re being playful –- quite literally, it’s a song that uses sex as a sports metaphor –- but they’re doing it with tremendous finesse.
Again, the song's conceit recalls the lyrical and thematic shenanigans of the early Beatles, of say, "Please Please Me" or "A Hard Day's Night." It is fair to say that Hall and Oates haven't made their Revolver, but it is no less fair to say that had the Beatles not gotten round to Revolver and What Came After they would still have been great, and great enough unproblematically to find a home in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Williams says that these songs "don’t challenge you to understand them," but it does seem to me that Hall and Oates riff on worthy if perennial themes and offer up plenty of nice formal puzzles for listeners to resolve -- enjoyment of their melodies and beat and performance doesn't depend on taking on provocation, but that is hardly something I would demand of much of even the greatest music. And when she goes on from denying the songs are challenging to saying "they defy you, Mr. and Ms. Cool, to enjoy them," it seems to me that that sounds like a personal problem. If these songs were charting defiance against popular norms it seems to me they would have, you know, thematized these issues in the songs. To me it seems that Hall and Oates wanted people to like their songs, and despite the neglect of their work over long stretches of their careers, it seems to me they expected people to like their songs, too. Contrary to Williams insistence that millions and millions of people bought their records but none admit to liking them, of course the truth is that people do.

In conclusion, Williams says that "Music has always been full of angry young men kicking over the statues." One could add, this business of angry young men kicking stuff is also true of life, and in life it is all too often a very harmful, tedious, self-indulgent spectacle indeed. Part of the power of the pop music I like best is its evocation of possibilities of connection and joy in a world of angry young men kicking stuff around. It is far from irrelevant that this joy is often enabled or at any rate purchased by a healthy dose of irony. "What’s raw is often granted a respect that what’s polished is not. And true pop, in all its brightly colored, exuberant glory, rarely gets its due," Williams ponders. But I must say I am not certain what such music is due beyond the pleasure of those who take it up and take it in, after all. And it seems to me a new theme emerges when from this conjuration of "brightly colored, exuberant glory" (let's say, flaming) Williams elaborates further: "But the artists who are really good at making pop songs -– the ABBAs and the Elton Johns and the Carpenters –- are a very special lot." Special, indeed, especially to the generations of queer folks who have built a culture out of these figures in particular, among others. These artists, writes Williams, "say it’s okay to be a little corny, because there’s sincere joy in the corny." To those excluded by poverty, by weirdness, by wrongness from corny sincerities, they can seem more than okay, but frankly utopian. More to the point, in pop music iconic figures ironize and italicize the prevailing gestures through which testimonies to history and to hope, to the pain of rejection and to the bliss of connection are made and assumed to be legible, and in so doing they render these gestures more capacious, more available to those who do not yet prevail. Great pop artists "invite you to do something really radical for the space of three and a half or so minutes –- to just shut up and be happy," Williams concludes. In such little deaths can one find the energy and inspiration for big lives, as from a joyful noise we find the fuel from which to make a joyful noise.