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

Friday, October 31, 2014

No Limits!

To trouble long definitive human limits with technoscientific change is not to put an end to all limits but to create and confront new ones.

More Futurological Brickbats here.

Last Things First

People are capable of almost anything. Hope is the last thing we should draw from this recognition, but it is one thing.

How We'll Be Spending Hallowe'en

Evidence of Things Been

Chatting with a friend, I discovered we both share a strong reluctance to take pictures in the present coupled with regret at the lack of pictures from certain pasts. My students sometimes seem to document every passing moment with their cellphone cameras, and I can't help but wonder whether they will be left with a surfeit amounting in the end to much the same lack.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Estelle and Janelle Make Mid-Term Politics Survivable



Also, too, that picture of a cat sewing a blanket. After Tuesday, it's all over but the crying.

VOTE!

The lesser of two evils may still be evil, but whenever the difference between two evils still makes the least difference it is a greater evil to pretend indifference.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Today's Random Wilde

I am a little too old now, myself, to trouble about setting a good example, but I always admire people who do.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Robocultic Kack Fight

It would seem that some Robot Cultists are mad with Elon Musk, too, for Summoning the Demon.

Although Musk is diverting plenty of money and attention to things robocultic, "Jesuscopter Crudslinger" declares Musk to be tantamount to the Taliban in the transhumanoid tabloid h+ magazine because Musk fails to love the Robot God with his whole heart. "[M]ind uploading and cyborgization seem almost inevitable, once you ponder them in a rational and open-minded way," insists rational and open-minded Jesuscopter Crudslinger. (It would appear that Mr. Crudslinger is none other than Ben Goertzel, about whom I've written before in Amor Mundi fan fave piece Nauru Needs Futurologists! and also in the self-explanatorily titled Robot Cultist Declares Need for Holiday Counting Chickens Before They Are Hatched.) "And the odds of AI systems vastly exceeding human beings in general intelligence and overall capability, seem very close to 100%." That "seem" is a nice touch, I must say. Very moderate! Very Serious.

'slinger goes on to confide, "Elon" -- with whom Jesuscopter Crudslinger is on a first name basis, naturally -- "I’m sorry if you find AGI, mind uploading and cyborgization demonic. But they’re going to happen anyway, no matter what you, MIRI, the Taliban or the Amish think about it. And no, humanity won’t be able to 'control' it, any more than we have been able to control computers [or] the Internet." Crudslinger says he is sorry, but I doubt it. He doesn't sound sorry. This is, I'm afraid, one of many doubts I am having. I find I'm reminded a little bit of...



These things are going to happen! That is to say, not only is it not implausible for you to expect Robot Gods to End History and for you to scan your "info-soul" from your cryo-hamburgerized brain to "upload" it as a cyber-angel that will live forever in Holodeck Heaven, why, all this is obvious! inevitable! unstoppable! To control this irresistible tide to techno-transcendence is so laughable that we must put the very word in scare-quotes, why, control isn't even a real word when you ponder it in a rational and open-minded way!

I come from cyberspace home of Mind... the changes in accelerating change are accelerating... the disrupters are disrupting the looming wall of finitude... no death! no taxes! no girl cooties in the clubhouse... the futurological faithful are achieving escape velocity... the stale, pale, males of the Robot Cult hail the Predator Gods of techno-capital.... they are buying The Future one gizmo at a time... the toypile will reach to infinity and beyond...

-- h/t Jim Fehlinger 

"Summoning the Demon": Robot Cultist Elon Musk Reads from Robo-Revelations at MIT

Speaking at MIT, no doubt as one techbro sooperbrain to others, Elon Musk has declared the Coming of the Robot God and His Robocalypse the greatest existential threat humanity faces. The religious cadences of his formulation are not an interpretive insinuation on my part. I am not just offering up snark to bolster my familiar characterization of the futurist sects of transhumanism, singularitarianism, techno-immortalism, digital-utopianism, nano-cornucopism, and so on as a Robot Cult: "With artificial intelligence," declared Musk, "we are summoning the demon," literally summoning the demonic. "In all those stories where there’s the guy with the pentagram and the holy water, it’s like yeah he’s sure he can control the demon." 

I have devoted more than my share of time to the exposure of infantile wish-fulfillment fantasizing at the heart of the Very Serious pseudo-science and pseudo-policy propounded by our well-funded futurological elites at Stanford, Oxford, Google, and MIT: all that adolescent pining for irrefutable logic-armor and free treasure piles and sexy slavebots and all the death denialism you can eat. But when futurologists furrow their browns over so-called "existential threats," when they flip the futurological script from Digi-Eden to Robo-Revelations, they cease for a moment to peddle paradise and distract the world and its resources instead from our real problems with phony ones. I have recently exposed transhumanist "philosopher" Nick Bostrom's Very Serious insistence that anthropogenic climate change is a non-problem compared with the Coming Robocalypse. Citing Bostrom's book in a tweet, Musk has already declared artificial sooper-intelligence a greater threat than nuclear weapons proliferation. 

I shouldn't have to say this, but climate change and nuclear weapons are real, and have really killed multitudes, and really threaten to destroy the world. But there is no Robot God to kill anybody anywhere -- though I suppose this dumb notion has lead a few people to waste their lives. Dead-ender champions of artificial intelligence have been declaring the arrival of AI imminent more or less every year for a century like Rapture-Ready evangelicals, always completely wrong, never the least bit diminished in their faith despite always being completely wrong, and still talking about intelligence in palpably incomplete, reductive, disembodied, sociopathic ways that may have something to do with all that.

I once described Elon Musk and Peter Thiel as the Koch Brothers of Reactionary Futurology, because these celebrity tech CEOs funnel their skim-and-scam bazillions into techno-transcendental vanity projects in which they play at being Randroidal protagonists on a world-historical scale, coding Robot Gods on leashes and "solving death," sure, sure, no problem, not to mention building libertopian techno-utopias on oil platforms right off the coast of San Francisco where they can indulge in innovative piratical kick-assery without having to stray uncomfortably far from the clean restaurants and working hospitals made possible by evil socialist regulations, state-subsidized electro-luxury sedans few want and fewer can afford that will trickle-down car culture into sustainability (greenwash, working at the greenwash, yeah), replacing real space programs devoted to science and exploration with profitable low earth orbit amusement park rides and glossy brochures promising to terraform Mars once we've trashed this motel room we call Earth, demolishing public education with gizmo infotainment and hologram MOOC re-runs, eradicating the tyrannical scourge of multicultural tolerance of those who are not "culture fit" techbros and so on.

These guys are for real whatever the irreality of their assumptions and aspirations. They are spending real money and they are being taken very seriously by people who are taken very seriously, even if everybody should know better since all this nonsense they are peddling is conspicuously idiotic. Remember, the Neocons were a marginal klatch of palpably crazy, stupid white guys who thought they were the smartest people in the room, too -- and look at all the damage they did and are still doing.

And make no mistake, in addition to all the usual corporate-militarist reactionaries who crow for high-tech libertopian ideology, American (neo)liberals also have a special weakness for this kind of techno-transcendental moonshine, falling for anti-democratic technofixes and technocratic design elites and gizmo fetishizing consumer "activism." Democrats who deride Creationists and climate change denial (as any person of sense should do) too often fail to grasp that techno-transcendental futurisms amount to faith-based initiatives, just as progressives demanding hope and change too often fail to grasp that techno-utopians repackage an ideology of status quo amplification as "revolution" and "disruption" and "accelerating change." 

At MIT, we are told that Musk also talked about "his favorite sci-fi books." Over and over again, we are confronted in the futurological with a perverse mis-identification of science and science policy with science fiction. This mis-identification falsifies the sense and substance of both consensus science and speculative literature, but it is richly enabling of fraud. When he was finished, all the venture-capitalists and bomb-builders of The Future gave the man a standing ovation.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Blahg

Eric and I voted last week by mail. I've been finding it difficult to blog this week. A whole lot of public discourse is even more unbearably stupid than it usually is, for which the smug superficiality of Chuck Todd seems to me to be more emblematic than even the outright ugly deceptions of hate talk and Fox. I know that a whole lot of people are not going to vote in the midterms who then will complain about political problems that would have been alleviated had they voted. Blogging as a practice of public intellectuality attesting to faith in emancipatory rhetoric is rather hard for me to maintain in times like these. That's my deficiency, but there it is. For what it's worth, I'll say again what I have said so often before: voting is not enough but it is nonetheless indispensable, no party nor politician is adequate to our problems but the difference between bad and worse makes enough of a difference that indifference to it is indefensible. As the nearness of the election deranges more and more realtime media I find I've been retreating into DVD marathons (I've been watching season after season of Star Trek; Voyager, which remains my favorite Trek, and the Complete Mapp and Lucia), or listening to music (Janelle Monae is still my favorite, but I'm also liking Kimbra and Adore Delano). Have you voted yet? How are you coping with the inevitable demoralization of mid-terms? What are you watching or listening to?

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Today's Random Wilde

The way of paradoxes is the way of truth. To test Reality we must see it on the tight rope. When the Verities become acrobats we can judge them.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Private/Public

The expectation of privacy is not a refusal of scrutiny but a refusal to be reduced to any authority's profile of us. The expectation of publicity is that we are made more capacious in our responsiveness to scrutiny than we can know from our present profile of ourselves.

Tech "Disruption" Is Monopoly Money

Remember back in the fifties when intellectuals (like Herbert Marcuse) were handwaving that lowered costs and increasing efficiencies from the automation of manufacturing would afford a nearly universal leisure society in a single generation? In what should have been a surprise move to no one, the destruction of organized labor by outsourcing first to the feudal remnants of the Confederacy and then to the global South made it possible instead for plutocrats to capture all the wealth generated by the stunning gains in efficiency made possible by automation and hence this development contributed to the present crisis of anti-democratic wealth concentration.

Remember back in the naughties when intellectuals (like Yochai Benkler) were handwaving that lowered costs from the digitization of publication and distribution infrastructure would afford rapid democratizing global development on the cheap? In what should be a surprise move to no one, it has instead afforded still greater wealth concentration through the duplication and replacement of existing enterprises and then the facilitation of monopolies among the ruins.

From RJ Escow's latest piece in Salon
Our society runs on a digital myth, which says that the technology-based economy is different... not subject to the principles of mathematics and human nature that govern the rest of our lives.  This myth tells us... we use services like Google and Facebook for “free.” ... Amazon is following a decades-long model for the tech industry. It begins with the rollout of cheap or “free” services -- typically based on the efforts of others -- offered at minimal cost in order to capture a monopoly share of the market. Once that monopoly is obtained, the tech vendor uses it to extract usurious and typically unanticipated costs...
That’s the story of Microsoft’s operating system... Bill Gates... acknowledges, he and his associates built MS/DOS by “taking Digital’s manual and writing my operating system.” IBM offered other operating systems with its new PCs... to mollify the Justice Department’s antitrust division... But the Gates/IBM product was offered for only $40, while users who wanted CP/M were required to pay $240. The die was cast. In his 1999 ruling against Microsoft, Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson [found that] ... Microsoft possesses monopoly power in the market for... operating systems... protect[s] its operating system monopoly, utilizing a full array of exclusionary practices... harmful to innovation and to consumers... How do you quantify the jobs, consumer savings or new revenues... lost because of innovations that never took place? ... Then there’s the human cost of product inefficiency... protected from competitors who might design a better product...
The monopoly strategy is the tech industry’s deep, dark secret... Despite its self-promoted reputation for “disruption” and invention, Microsoft’s monopoly approach is Silicon Valley’s real business model... Although it was never distinguished by smart design or ease of use, Facebook moved aggressively to capture a monopolistic share of the social media market. Then came the ads, the interference, the invasions of privacy... YouTube, like Facebook, never generated its own content. It built its monopoly position by offering free access to the creative work of others. Once firmly established on its monopolistic throne, it began forcing viewers to watch advertisements before viewing videos.
That’s the model: First lure them in and establish your monopoly, then monetize. YouTube is now owned by Google, which also commands a monopoly share of its market... [L]ike its peers, it has relied heavily on government-funded technology (the Internet, computers, smartphones) and government-funded research to capture its monopoly share. It has used its monopoly to redirect users’ attention, and to exert frightening levels of control over users’ experience of the world... “Uber,” which recently distinguished itself by earning an “F” rating from the Better Business Bureau... is following the path laid down by its forebears: First, identify a core market. Second, establish a monopoly position. Then capitalize on that position... Amazon isn’t a monopoly or monopsony in anything except books -- yet. But it has demonstrated through its actions that it intends to become one in every market it serves.  It has used its enormous cash flow -- cash flow based on government-provided tax breaks -- in order to act proactively and ruthlessly to eliminate future competitors. While it’s far from a monopoly in diapers, for example, it used its revenue base to engage in brutal price competition with Diapers.com (which it then acquired).
This strategy could be described as “serial monopoly” and “serial monopsony.” It enters a market, leverages an economic advantage (sales tax exemptions, revenues from other product lines) and then preys on competitors until it reaches something like a monopoly position... In one way the serial monopolists are a new creature, spawned from technology that allows them to enter new markets without initially manufacturing or warehousing the merchandise themselves. In another sense theirs is an old tactic, one that would have been familiar to the railroad tycoons who were setting the price of grain in 19th century America... Silicon Valley represents a set of values that is amoral by commonly held standards. It’s rapidly taking control of the distribution systems for music, literature and arts. And it’s increasingly manipulating our access to information, even as it absorbs an ever-increasing share of our economy. Scoff at the word “monopoly” if you like. But if these developments don’t concern you, you’re not paying attention.

Won't Somebody Please Think of the Children?

What if yer kids get the eekbola from the candy bowl when they go tricker treatin'? Makes you unthink.

Inside the Republican Mind


Thursday, October 23, 2014

Are You Experienced?

The inexperienced often know everything. The experienced know better.

More Faulty Ivory Towers here.

Seeing Things

Science fiction may be occasionally, if only incidentally, predictive -- as can efforts in any other literary genre. But at its heart, science fiction stands in a creative and critical relation to the present. At its extreme, the misconstrual of science fiction as essentially predictive yields the pseudo-scientific pseudo-policy of the futurological scenario. The stodgy sterility of too much "hard sf" derives from its inept aspiration to be more futurological than literary. That futurological scenarios are then retroactively revealed to be mired in parochial and past prejudices, and predictively accurate in roughly the same proportion that could be accomplished by puppies rolling over keyboards, tends to go unnoticed amidst the next batch of predictions.

Pep Pap

The problem with pleas for more "positive" "utopian" sf is that they are essentially efforts to replace literature with advertising.

More Futurological Brickbats here.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Today's Random Wilde

Selfishness is not living as one wishes to live, it is asking others to live as one wishes to live.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Sunday, October 19, 2014

R.U. Sirius on Transhumanism

A recent episode of Klint Finley and Chris Dancy's "Mindful Cyborgs" podcast featured an ongoing conversation with dashing cyberkardashian R.U. Sirius. Although his futurological antics annoy me as much as they do when others indulge them, I have always wanted to like R.U. Sirius and often have succeeded, not least because futurology is deadly in earnest but in his irony sometimes manages to assume instead the force of critique. Athena Andreadis likes to call the transhumanists "transhumorists," because their pseudo-scientific facts and their pseudo-progressive values are a bad joke at best. R.U. Sirius is not a less silly name than, say, Max More, but it is funnier and manages to be self-conscious rather than symptomatic about it, and so I give him the benefit of the doubt (not to mention noticing that he benefits from doubt, unlike Max More). In such moments, R.U. Sirius manages to be something of a stand-up transhumorist, a camp futurist, rather than just a bad futurological joke on us.

I'll say a few more comparatively generous things by way of conclusion at the end, but first I am a critic and I criticize. I must say, I was interested to notice how interested R.U. Sirius seemed to be in having folks not notice the extent of his connection to the transhumanist sect of techno-transcendentalist robocultism. After ending his stint as editor of h+ magazine (h+ stands for humanity-plus, which in turn is the PR repackaging of the transhumanist term itself -- and if you didn't know that already or question any of that, many transhumanoids would no doubt deem you humanity-minus), R.U. insinuates that he has somewhat lost touch with the many fleeting and competing sub(cult)ural strands of "the transhumanist movement." He also takes great care to express dissatisfaction with what he regards as the reactionary politics and Randroidal stylings of Zoltan Istvan, who he seems to consider a rather looming recent mouthpiece for transhumanism more generally and perhaps the symptom of a worrying turn.

I sympathize with the judgment that it is no easy thing to keep up with all the wacky twists and turns of robocultism and even harder to justify the effort given the marginality and imbecility of so much of it. And needless to say I quite agree that all these transhumanists, singularitarians, techno-immortalists, digi-utopians, nano-cornucopiasts, geo-engineers, and so on are indulging and elaborating an essentially reactionary ideology, and some of them are well-funded and organized enough to do real damage in the world. None of this is the least bit new, however, and R.U. Sirius, while he may never have endorsed any of this always infantile and usually reactionary nonsense in an explicit or unqualified form, has been up to his neck in this stuff for as long as anybody else.

The two instances that strike me as most relevant to my point are responses R.U. Sirius published in answer to earlier critiques of the reactionary politics of transhumanism, Annalee Newitz' Extropian Trash from 2004, and Charlie Stross' Deconstructing Our Future from 2012.

First, in response to the Newitz piece, R.U. Sirius (and quite serious he seems to be), said the following (I found this transcript in an old Cyborg Democracy archive, and would be pleased if anybody has a better or more substantial reference):
NEOFILES: I was a little surprised by your take on transhumanism. Sure, the sensibilities that seem to accompany a lot of this is sort of Heinleinian “Amazing Stories” ubergeek; not particularly sly or post-punk. But I would expect you to be more aligned with James Hughes and his lefty-oriented “Democratic Transhumanism” (he links to you) than to just sort of nay-say longevity, bio-enhancement, and all these areas of intrigue, given your previous radical pro-tech “biopunk” writings. It seems to me that once you say “yeah”! to biopunk -- decentralized, independent noodling with life forms … biology (presumably including our own) … you’re about 99.9% of the way to a transhumanist perspective (and in some ways, beyond it). I mean, we’re talking TRANS here, right? TRANShumanity, TRANSexuality (that’s all about self enhancement too. So why is this one’s challenge to biological destiny hip and trendy and the other one gauche?) Recontextualizations, reconfigurations, moving into zones of uncertainty where positive mutation might occur: this is all in the spirit of the “Cyborg Manifesto,” no?
This paragraph red-lights the whole control board for me, and so let me just make a few almost random critical interventions at a run, starting at the end and working my way to the beginning. First, I think it is a profound misreading of Haraway's "Manifesto for Cyborgs," to describe its "spirit" as the least bit allied to faith-based futurology and hyper-consumerist gizmo-fetishism. In a later interview published as the final chapter of The Haraway Reader (Routledge, 2004) she says all you need to know about the loose ascription R.U. Sirius is proposing here:
There were some who regarded it [The Cyborg Manifesto] as… promoting a kind of blissed-out, techno-sublime euphoria. Those readers completely failed to see the critique. They would read things that for me are highly ironic and angry… they would read these things… as if I was embracing and affirming what I am describing with barely restrained fury… I have had people, like Wired Magazine readers, interviewing and writing about the Cyborg Manifesto from what I see as a very blissed-out, techno-sublime position.
I have similar objections to his free associational leap from "biopunk" to what he calls a "radical pro-tech" position. Quite apart from the fact that there are too many differences that make a difference among the capacities and applications of the events and artifacts that get called "tech" for it to make any kind of sense to be monolithically either "pro" or "con" that whole mess and then go on to describe such an utterly confused state of mind as in any sense a "radical" one, the fact is that "biopunk" as a discourse, a literary genre, and a cultural site is enormously critical and skeptical and nuanced in ways all his glib talk here disavows utterly. I taught a course at Berkeley years ago about bioethical discourse and biopunk literature (the syllabus is still available here, the bioethical articles and op-eds we read are not included, unfortunately, since they were always assigned one week in advance because I tried to make them as topical as possible and they often were published just days or weeks before we read them in the course itself), and it seems to me that the vitality of biopunk is indeed allied to the spirit of Haraway's manifesto, in ways that R.U. Sirius is utterly missing here and encouraging others to miss at the same time. I do not regard this as innocent in one both so knowledgeable and aware. Further, I regard his cheerleading of the essentially eugenicist project of transhumanist "enhancement" as terribly wrongheaded and his effort to repackage it as appealingly "pro-choice" through a glib slippage of transhuman optimally-profitable people-engineering into a celebration of transsexual queerness very familiar and very pernicious indeed.

For the purposes of the argument at hand, though, all I need to point out is that R.U. Sirius was pushing back in 2004 against a critique of the very kind R.U. Sirius in 2014 now implies is second nature to him, and also that he has been affiliating with transhumanism more insistently (and with a clearly fine-grained awareness of strands and positions and figures in that discourse and movement, and this already years and years ago) than his cavalier dismissals now would imply.

In his more recent response to Charles Stross' critique of reactionary transhumanism he wrote:
I have lately tried to stay away from calling myself a transhumanist largely because I’m intimate with the unpredictable and indescribable iconoclasm that often shakes my brain and therefore resist labels. But I also like to steer clear because people who don’t self-identify with the label have a lot of misconceptions about who “the transhumanists” are. And every now and then, a fairly predictable group of thinkers… some of them friends of mine… beat the straw out of their conception of transhumanism. They give it a damn good thrashing. Now, if these folks were criticizing some tendencies within some prominent self-identified transhumanist circles, they’d often be on target. But what we get from them is something akin to some people attacking atheism in the 1960s based on the prominence of Madeline O’Hair and Ayn Rand.
When he writes that some have beaten the straw out of transhumanism he links to Stross' critique directly. The phrase suggests that Stross' piece is indulging in the torching of straw men. This is hard to reconcile with his admission in the next sentence that there are in fact plenty of transhumanists, even "prominent" transhumanists, even whole transhumanist "circles" for whom the critique is in point. That's a lot of substance for straw.

What makes R.U. Sirius squeamish here is that he identifies transhumanism with an "unpredictable and indescribable iconoclasm that… resist[s] labels." But is it really true that transhumanism is so unpredictable and indescribable? For whatever it is worth, by far the most widely read piece I've ever written is The Unbearable Stasis of Accelerating Change in which I bemoan precisely the robotic predictability and painful obviousness (yeah, it's describable) of transhumanist discourse. It also just happens that it was an affirmation of this piece of mine which occasioned the Stross critique which provoked R.U. Sirius' response. That piece of mine was also mentioned and linked by the Mindful Cyborgs show and was part of the conversation I am talking about now.

It is very hard to make sense of R.U. Sirius' assertion that transhumanism in the sense that interests him "resists labels." Transhumanism is an -ism, after all, and inter-sectarian squabbles among the futurological faithful inevitably take the form of a ramification of labels with which the partisans identify with an energy hard to square with the marginal stakes of the whole business given the number of folks directly involved (but this sort of thing is of course quite familiar in cultic ideological formations and defensive fandoms), singularitarian-ISM, immortal-ISM, cosm-ISM, liberal eugenic-ISM, neoreaction-ISM, and on and on and on.

In the very paragraph in which he declares transhumanists label-averse he also refers to the labeling practices of "self-identified" transhumanists, going so far as to say that "people who don't self-identify with the label have a lot of misconceptions about who 'the transhumanists' are," which implies that the transhumanists are indeed enough of something that people can have misconceptions about them but also that the only people who might be qualified to criticize transhumanism self-identify as transhumanist and hence are little likely to do so -- now isn't THAT convenient? Look, is transhumanism a discourse or isn't it? Is it an ideology or isn't it? Is it a movement or isn't it? There are people who are calling themselves transhumanists who seem to mean something by that and who expect others to know what they mean when they do so. There are transhumanist membership organizations with actual members, actual subscribers, actual participants. To say that all the different instances subsumed under a concept exhibit differences is to state a truism, but if you choose a label the very legibility conferred by the choice also exposes you to scrutiny. One can delineate the logical, citational, and figurative associations playing out in an ideology, in a discourse, in a constellation of cultural practices without claiming that only those associations are at hand, or that they are always on exhibition, or that all of them are even intended by those who are caught up in them. If there are people who are represented by transhumanism this implies that transhumanism has a representativeness the legibility of which is available to everybody and with which everybody can come to terms as they see fit -- including those who would see all this critically.

If transhumanists can identify as such and describe canons of texts and stand in organizational relations to one another then non-transhumanists can identify others as such and analyze these texts and delineate these relations in ways the transhumanists can like or not like. If transhumanists want to dismiss criticism as hate speech (something I am accused of quite a bit, and I think R.U. Sirius is leveling a mild form of the same accusation at Stross) then transhumanism cannot be a space of argumentation or publicity or change but is simply a sterile separatist subculture. That's fine, as far as it goes -- I am the last one to deny anybody their private perfections so long as they aren't harming anybody else -- but transhumanism and its cousin futurological sects are endlessly offering themselves up to public scrutiny, pretending to be engaging in scientific practice and serious policy deliberation. They cannot have it both ways. And, I'm afraid that goes for R.U. Sirius as well.

Again, as I said, I have always wanted to like R.U. Sirius. He makes me laugh, and not at him but with him as often as not. It isn't easy trying to be a counter-culture documentarian, especially one who, like Barthes, "claims to live to the full the contradiction of my times, which may well make sarcasm the condition of truth." The Academy's authorities don't easily attach their credentials or their life-sustaining funding to this kind of work. Taste and tastelessness collide in it in ways that make academics nervous for their job titles. V. Vale is someone who has done indispensable work in this area, which is not to deny the occupational hazard of the occasional catastrophic critical misfire in that body of work. R.U. Sirius is a lot like that, too: vacuuming up all that gorgeous lifeway variation and marginal creative expressivity in that free associational way of his can yield deeply problematic undercriticalities and vacuities amid the buried treasure chests. Since R.U. Sirius is not just an archivist but also a kind of impresario of "cybercultures" -- given to pranks and performances -- there is a real seat-of-the-pants improvisational hustling going on in many of his enterprises. Like the head of an itinerate theater troupe in the nineteenth century bringing beauty and laughs to the yokels always on the brink of starvation or riot, R.U. Sirius doesn't always have the time or patience for what passes for legitimacy in official public culture. That critical intervention with a beat you can dance to, Mondo Vanilli, a joyous javelin straight to the heart and hardon of bad-faith authenticity performance in the entertainment industry, is a marvelous case in point. In this, he has my sympathies even when I cannot help but criticize his efforts here and there. I'm a fat fifty year old faggot socialist-feminist adjunct teaching critical theory and technoscience studies at a San Francisco art school, I know all about intellectual hustling.

The special danger of R.U. Sirius' position is that he is hustling in a sea of hustlers. There is an ominously tight connection of futurology with fraud. Even in its blandest and most prevalent forms, futurological imagery suffuses the marketing and promotional promises of consumer advertising (full of models in lab coats and sci-fi CGI peddling boner pills and anti-aging kremes) seducing us into unsustainable conformist individualism and official neoliberal think-tanks offering up "globalizing" "developmental" rationalizations for elite-incumbent corporate-militarist exploitation and violence. And at its gaudy extremes in the various robocultic sects of techno-transcendentalist futurological movements, the indulgence in outright pseudo-science and death-denialism and existential fear-mongering takes the con-artistry and fraud to evangelical heights (about these movements, you can read what everybody reads of mine if they read anything, the Superlative Futurology pieces in The Condensed Critique of Transhumanism).

The Future of futurology was born in the cradle of market futures, and there is a kinship between think-tank scenario spinners for the Pentagon and writers of best-sellers promising to provide the magic formula for Wall Street success. But true success in such spaces always finally depends on the fraud and corruption of insider knowledge and always comes at the expense of majorities of outsiders. Plutocracy and militarism are built into The Future at the ground level. The Future is always ultimately about the amplification of the status quo re-packaged for the masses as progress, disruption, and accelerating change. In this, The Future is crucially to be distinguished from the open futurity inhering in the present emerging into the next-present in consequence of the ineradicable diversity of its stakeholders (I make this argument most clearly in the Existenz piece, Futurological Discourses and Posthuman Terrains).

There is always a bit of credential-fluffing and con-artistry in counter-culture. And righteously so! since all culture is multiculture and since culture is a living thing, not a dead specimen preserved under glass, countercultural opportunisms and debaucheries are indispensably invigorating in their totality (if not always in their specificity), and also since turnabout is fair play. There is nonetheless a real danger that a focus on the countercultural forces futurism promises distracts from the reactionary forces futurology endorses, and the countercultural hustler enables the reactionary hustle of pseudo-science and uncritical True Belief and corporate-militarist policymaking. While I do not think this is R.U. Sirius' serious intention, I do think this is too often the result of his undercritical embrace of transhumanist discourses and sub(cult)ures. And whether or not he has thought this through enough for it to represent a fully-fledged intention his apologia for transhumanists and against critiques of their reactionary entailments don't look innocent to me whatever his intentions.

Republican Voter Fraud

Every time a citizen is disenfranchised by a fee, by a cumbersome voting process, or by an exclusive ID requirement the state has committed voter fraud. I do not deny that other forms of voter fraud -- like the Republicans' obsessive go-to scenario, in-person voter-impersonation -- are also real, if rare, but I do know that if a state disenfranchises thousands of citizens on the pretext of eliminating a form of fraud that involves a handful of instances then that state is not acting to eliminate voter fraud but to commit it.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Louie Gohmert Has Been Diagnosed With Asshola

TPM:
Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-TX) ... joined Glenn Beck on his radio show where he said that he does not have Ebola when Beck asked how he was. "As far as I know, I’m okay. But do any of us really know for sure?"
There's nothing like Texas reactionary "leaders" whomping up bedwetting panic to get Americans to vote for more anti-science Republicans who despise public healthcare on principle to make everything worse in every possible way.

The Reactionary Ideology Bolstered By the False Claim That Robots Inhabit Mars

Mika McKinnon asks, "Is Mars really the only planet solely inhabited by robots?" She then answers, "Yes, but no. The truth behind this meme is an excellent opportunity to investigate just how adventurous our robotic explorers are in visiting all sorts of places we squishy humans haven't."


At the risk of seeming utterly pedantic (in my defense, I'll say McKinnon opened the door by enjoyably geeking out on the proper definition of "planet"), I want to answer that robots don't inhabit any places anywhere. While the verb "inhabit" may seem to designate the neutral occupation of space by anyone or anything, it actually has more the specific connotations of "living" in a place, "residing," "dwelling," "making a home" in a place. To say that robots inhabit Mars is exactly as wrong as declaring that rock formations inhabit Mars together with the robots.

This is not a trivial or an innocent error. To talk about robots as if they are people makes it easier to treat people as if they are robots. Just as the misrecognition of cars, phones, homes, cards as "smart" when they are not undermines the recognition that human beings are smart, a recognition indispensable to our responsibility to the dignity and standing of human beings, so too the investment of the nonliving with the connotations of the living divests the living of the legible terms on which they depend for their lives.

The consequences of this catastrophic framing are actually already beginning to play out in the sentences immediately following the confused initial assertion: robots are described as "adventurous" and as "explorers" who (a devastating implication) are "visiting places." It isn't surprising that when humans finally make an actual appearance in this formulation, humans who really are adventurous, humans who really are explorers, humans who really do visit places, humans who really do inhabit and live places, we are dismissed as "squishy" as compared to superior robot beings who are presumably stronger, sturdier, more resilient.

Of course, what is worse in this rhetorical framing is that human adventurousness and inhabitation of the solar system is in fact expressed precisely in the creation of robotic devices that enable and mediate our explorations. While McKinnon claims that "the truth behind this meme" are the admirable antics of machinic agents, the meme actually foregrounds a falsehood.

The agency displaced onto the robotic figure in these formulations is an active falsification, it is human agency that conceived, funds, builds, programs, operates, narrates, analyses our robotic openings onto our wider worlds of discovery and wonder.

I don't know McKinnon's avowed views and so I would hesitate to ascribe explicit futurological aspirations to her. Near the end of her piece she attributes agency more sensibly saying, "we've done an excellent job of spreading robots throughout the solar system," but before you declare her identification through that pronoun "we" as humanist, I would direct your attention to the prelude to that identification, in which she makes a point of denigrating what she calls human beings' "puny, fleshy bodies" in what seems to me the usual futurological dis-identification. Indeed, in taking up futurological frames (robotic persons, AIs, etc.) that are all too ready-to-hand in public technodevelopmental discourse she is, possibly unwittingly and even anti-wittingly, mobilizing a techno-transcendental ideology which dis-identifies with the living intelligent beings with whom she shares the present world the better to identify instead with artificial living intelligences in "the future" -- an ideology the substance of which (since, mind you, none of these futuristic beings actually ever exist) is the retro-futural rationalization of the terms of incumbent-elite corporate-militarist prevalence over the present emerging onto the next-present.

Wall-eyed Republican Racism

Republicans want a border fence to keep scary brown families out, an airport wall to keep scary brown ebola out, a voter ID wall to keep scary brown democratic votes out...

Progress

First being is degraded by consumer capitalism into having, then having is degraded by spectacular media into appearing, and now appearing is being degraded by data collection into being framed.

More Fool Me Tee Vee here.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Crap Recap

Hard to know if "Pacific Rim Number Two" is meant to characterize the original or the sequel.


Republican Uplift

Cheating through disenfranchisement and making people stupid with ebola/ISIS panic will help Republicans in the mid-terms. Oh, how very proud they must be!

Your Number's Up

The Future of the futurologists is the lottery you will never win.

More Futurological Brickbats here.

Superlativity, A True Story (Possibly Allegorical)

Asked at the Claremont Diner whether I would like soup or salad with my sandwich, and imagining I had been offered a Super Salad, I said: Oh, yes, please! Ridicule and then disappointment followed. But my lunch was tasty.

"Overcoming Our Biological Limits"

It is a techno-transcendental commonplace to pretend that medicine is confounding long definitive biological limitations in human health, capacity, lifespan, and so on. These claims are usually just completely false, but they are always overblown. The Pill provides a fine illustration of the point, since it truly did enable a fundamental and profoundly emancipatory transformation of the human condition in my view, but without rendering humanity "post-human" in the sense that interests the superlative futurologists in the least.

I see no reason to expect any radical enhancement of definitive human capacities or any increase of lifespan beyond the upper bound some lucky humans have always enjoyed in recorded history (although I would like to think medical improvements might enable many more humans to share in that bit of luck) of the sort that would render "posthuman" or "transhuman" terms more apt now than they have been since World War II to characterize human beings. But quite apart from this sort of well warranted skepticism about imminent techno-transcendental expectations -- whether originating in ill-informed credulity, promotional fraud, pseudo-science, or wish-fulfillment fantasizing -- I must say that I find techno-transcendental interpretations of such projected outcomes profoundly wrongheaded in principle even if they were not also wildly implausible or premature.

On the one hand, these futurologists seem too eager to treat biological limits as self-evident givens, when the terms of bodily legibility and the significance with which biological traits and capacities are freighted are in fact historically varied, constructed and contingent. While on the other hand, futurologists seem to dismiss the extent to which salient continuities in human life -- and especially a shared vulnerability to suffering, correction, injury, abuse, neglect, disease, mortality -- have provided a context within which humans have testified together to our hopes and our histories, a context out of which humans have elaborated our still fledgling morals, ethics, politics, aesthetics. If our technique ever truly were to confound long definitive human limits, such as they are, this would hardly be experienced as an ecstatic overcoming of all limits but as a confrontation with new, and utterly bedeviling, limits to our sense of sharable experience and shared significance.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Aphoristic Futuristic

Interesting that the two go-to cyberpunk aphorisms "the future arrives but is not evenly distributed" and "the street finds its own uses for things" point the same moral.

Today's Random Wilde

Art is the mathematical result of the emotional desire for beauty.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Fluffing Yud

In the Moot long-time friend of blog "JimF" cites "Meta-Med Senior Health Research and Medical Associate" Dr. Scott Siskind, a.k.a "Scott S. Alexander" (he's quoting people quoting people quoting people so I might have the attribution wrong). Meta-Med, you may recall, is a plutocratic/"personalized" eugenicist/"enhancement" medical/"kindasorta" outfit with lots of robocultic muckety mucks behind it, and I drew some attention to it and to the transhumanists/singularitarians connected to it in the post to which the Moot I'm upgrading here is appended. Anyway, it turns out that in the recent best-selling and very widely reviewed book Superintelligence by transhumanist singularitarian Robot Cultist Nick Bostrom, "Eliezer [Yudkowsky] gets cited just about every other page, and in MIRI HQ there is a two-way videoscreen link from them to Nick Bostrom’s office in Oxford because they coordinate so much." This commenter then goes on to say that, "Searching the book’s bibliography [there are many] citations of MIRI people." MIRI is an acronym for the Machine Intelligence Research Institute which used to be the Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence (long associated with Yudkowsky fanboys), but changed its name as the burgeoning recent corporate-military mainstreaming of Singularity ideology via Singularity University (so-called), the Singularity Summit, and various Google projects to code a Robot God and end death have started to attract more serious attention and cash. The commenter does note an interesting traffic between MIRI folks and people being hired by Google in these projects, and so the name change may be as much or more a matter of creating confusions about uncomfortable associations than the official story of eliminating confusions about inaccurate associations. Be that as it may, MIRI in its present incarnation overlaps with Meta-Med in many of its funders and advisors, as full-on fulminating techno-transcendentalism still remains confined to a fairly cramped sub(cult)ure. Specific names that come up in the comment from the Moot about robocultic citations in Bostrom's bibliography are "Stuart Armstrong, Kaj Sotala, Paul Christiano, Wei Dai, Peter de Blanc, Nick Hay, Jeff Kaufman, Roko Mijic, Luke Muehlhauser, Carl Shulman, Michael Vassar, and nine different Eliezer publications." (Spelunk the Moot, by the way, to find half of these folks cutting their teeth the long decade through, some of them saying the most hilarious things imaginable.) To all this I added the following ruminations:
I seem to recall that Yudkowsky first claimed he didn't need to get a degree in any of the fields on which he still illiterately pontificates because the singularity was supposedly so near it would be a waste of time. Of course nowadays Robot Cultists like Bostrom who managed at least to do the work to get into the academy are so busy enabling Yudkowsky as a member of the fellow-faithful, getting him publications and citations and speaking gigs he could scarcely manage for himself with his online catalog of facile pseudo-philosophical fanfic about Harry Potter and Flowers for Algernon, that it remains a waste of time for Yudkowsky to set aside his guru-gig and actually see if his marginal convictions would long survive unqualified were he to go through the long slog of engaging with people who actually know what they're talking about. I actually do not doubt Yudkowsky is intelligent enough to benefit from an actual degree program and long-term engagement with the demands of real research. The path he is on does damage to the world -- deranging the terms of public deliberation and providing rationales for elite-incumbent interests on urgent technoscience questions -- but also to himself as far as I'm concerned. A caveat though: philosophy departments will obviously let anybody through (hell, even me!), and Yudkowsky would not be helped in the least by a degree in philosophy which he then treated as an endorsement of his skills in computer science or his knowledge of physics. It is yet another sign of the extreme and at this point multi-generational decline into crisis of Anglo-American analytic philosophy that it can no longer insulate itself from futurology being done in its name and under its auspices.

Lewis Black on Voter Suppression

Friday, October 10, 2014

Independent is the new Blue Dog

And so, maybe gridlock eases a bit as reactionary but not crazytown Republicans and corporatist Democrats get elected in Red and Purple States as Independents, but only by moving partisan politics to the right, even though majorities disapprove of and are actively harmed by this shift, largely because the House and Senate are inherently non-representative of the reality of an urban rather than rural populace, all this encouraging apathy among majorities and the usual useless separatist self-marginalizing noises from intellectuals, further consolidating plutocratic capture of governance, ensuring in turn that parochial profit taking remains the order of the day until climate catastrophe and global unrest overwhelm institutions fatally... ugh, I'm going to go lick a tootsie-pop.

Profiles in Bedwetting Panic

FDR: The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.
GOP: The only thing we fear more than everything is doing anything.

Preferable

When you are flying under the radar you are still flying.

It's Been A She Breaks for Rainbows Day So Far Today

Thursday, October 09, 2014

Dumb Dvorsky Faces Reality, Throws Tantrum

Day after day the day ends, the present yields upon the future but it's never The Future, today yields upon tomorrow but it's never Tomorrowland.

It can't be easy for the futurological faithful, hyping the acceleration of accelerating change and forever cheering on all that venture capitalist disruption all the time and finding themselves in a world that seems to be a stale re-tread of the 1990s over and over and over again, just with less hope and more climate catastrophe.

Well, transhumanoid Robot Cultist George Dvorsky, for one, has HAD it!

I would gently remind Dvorsky that when irrational wishes don't come true the problem is to be located in the insufficient sense of the wish rather than in the insufficient fervency of the wish. But our Dvorsky declares that for them as wants to be Robot Gods what is needed round here is more "public demand." Later in the piece he also wags his finger at nabobs of negativity, no doubt all those deathists and luddites and yuck-factor forces who keep humanity-plus people from having nice things like immortal super bodies and sexy sexbotic slaves in nano treasure caves.

You know, maybe I've been wrong to think transhumanoid Robot Cultist Zoltan Istvan's recent announcement of his Presidential run under the banner of the Transhumanist Party is a self-lampooning artifact, maybe this is just the sort of kick ass organizing drive that Dvorsky is talking about, something to get the whole techno-transcendental paradise into production. Istvan provides a link in his high-profile Huffington Post Presidential announcement (you may have to dig through some posts advocating homeopathy and Gwyneth Paltrow), and clicking it one discovers that the Transhumanist Party may not be much of a thing yet -- the site is mostly black but "under construction" -- but by gosh it has been trademarked, by its founder, promoter, chief bottle-washer, AND Presidential Nominee... Zoltan Istvan! Although I think there would be something appealingly Kang and Kodos, not to mention a little bit Baltar, about voting for President Zoltan, I fear there may be hiccoughs along the transhumanoidal railway to the US Presidency... Dvorsky should obviously drop his Canadian citizenship forthwith and cross the border in time for Zoltan to get one more precious vote for the presidential pile-on!

In the meantime, Dvorsky wants to know where his working biosphere 2 is so that he can pretend it is the womb in which is born an escape hatch from all the intractable environmental and political problems here on biosphere 1 (aka earth), the ones he became a futurologist to avoid thinking about in a useful way. (Here is why that is a dangerously stupid and evil notion.) Dvorsky wants to know why we aren't curing the ebola virus with those 3D-printer vaccines he hyped because he thinks he is as qualified to publish expert opinions about the plausibility of such proposals from reading press releases by celebrity tech CEOs as he would be by acquiring an actual degree in any of the scientific disciplines involved. Dvorsky wants to know why longevity medicine to increase human lifespans beyond the upper bound common to the ancients and the moderns alike keeps going nowhere, since he chose long ago the futurological fork in the road and decided not to care about actual healthcare access and research into real and neglected health conditions killing countless human beings who could be contributing their measure to the solution of our shared problems and to the creative expression that makes life worth living here and now. (More on the hype versus the real-world consequences of the hype.)

Dvorsky wants to know why mountains of cell-cultured meat-mush are not feeding the world like futurologists have promised credulous tech-press illiterates every three years or so for generations, rather than focus on the disastrous environmental and health and ethical consequences of the subsidized corpse addiction presently met by the mountain of meat mush and pink goo produced by factory farms and fast food consumerism. (Here is more about the old whiskered vaudevillian futurist bit that is "cell-cultured/artificial meat.") Dvorsky also wants to know why a nation that can't put a person on the Moon anymore and won't even provide nutritional assistance for its own citizens isn't building a Space Elevator that can't be built without non-existing materials and techniques and isn't exactly clear on either the technical or the political complexities or dodging dangerous space debris or interacting with orbital international assets.

Rather than discussing the public subsidization of solar rooftops or home improvement loans to add front porches and attic fans and energy efficient insulation and appliances and geothermal sub-basement pumps or wind and tidal turbine collectives or bike lanes or public rail projects or re-zoning cities for walkability, Dvorsky wants to know why we aren't building fusion plants or vast photovoltaic archipelagos in space that beam energy onto the surface in the form of microwaves. Who ever heard of putting a front porch or a bike lane on the cover of a science fiction novel -- unless possibly it was a post-apocalyptic dystopia or a scene in an L5 torus? But crystalline cathedrals of solar panels miles wide above the earth, now that's the kind of porn a futurologists can peddle as policy! The same goes for the megascale engineering wet-dreams of geo-engineering that Dvorsky is also pouting and stamping his feet for failing to arrive. Who cares about painting roofs white or planting trees, futurologists want fleets of airships spraying cloudbanks with glitter and building undersea cities to pipe cold water from the ocean floor to the surface to restrain polar melting. It's time to give up on democratically accountable legislation and public investment, let the billionaires who profited from the destruction of the earth save the world for profit with the very same corporate-military bulldozer brains! What could possibly go wrong? (I have written too many critiques of geo-engineering discourse to list here, but this is a fairly representative and popular one.)

Of course, it isn't surprising that as a transhumanist Dvorsky goes on a few eugenic tears (more on transhumanism and eugenics here) -- declaring some moonshine he calls "gene drives" is "opening up incredible opportunities for the control and manipulation of wildlife." Despite the use of the present tense to describe forces that are not in fact in force, Dvorsky's use of the term "incredible" is the more reliable one: what he says here is not to be believed. Similarly, Dvorsky wants to know why bioengineering and genetic therapies have failed to flower into the fabulous efficacious therapies promised in the epoch of the Human Genome project hype. In true futurological fashion, Dvorsky insinuates that the fault does not fall to credulous idiots like himself cheerleading impossible outcomes based on laughably simplistic and reductive non-understandings of genetics, but to those who do not throng the pews of the futurological faithful, those who lack the steely chrome dildo of a high future-shock level (for more on what I mean, read this) like the stale pale males of the Robot Cult (for more on what I mean, read this), those who are timid and shy and scared of futurological things beyond their ken. If only the sheeple could get past their "yuck factor," why, we would live a thousand years in comic book muscle-bods with x-ray vision and (yes, George) a full luxurious cascading Veronica Lake of hair. As for the male pill, also on the wish list, I'll agree that is something we are all of us impatiently awaiting -- and I must say the idea of male contraception taking the form of a lotion, or better yet a water-based lubricant sounds quite excellent. Look, I'm trying to meet the guy halfway, here!

Dvorsky concludes by wanting to know why we have no whole brain emulation yet. As usual, the reason is because this would be incomparably harder than it looks to the futurologists who want it. By the way, I think there are perfectly good reasons why scientists would want better brain scans and models as well, since these would add to our knowledge of brain processes and their dynamic relationships to thought and selfhood. Among the reasons this would be useful is that I daresay the more we know about the material realities of consciousness and identity the fewer folks will be drawn into the facile fancies of futurologists who want to arrive at such emulations because they believe the flabbergastingly stupid belief that such would be the arrival at a stepping stone along the road to super-parental Robot Gods and uploading humans into cyberangels living forever in Holodeck Heaven. (For more on this utterly nonsensical notion read this.) It is important to notice that in shaking his fist at the failure of this longed-for technological development Dvorsky has really broken his promise from the beginning of the piece that his list "only include[s] those items that are within reasonable technological reach," for which reason he omits from it other longed-for wish-fulfillment fantasies "like molecular assemblers, warp drives, and the recipe for safe artificial intelligence" -- why, those things (which will either never arrive at all -- warp drive? honey, please -- or not arrive in even modest qualified forms in the lifetimes of anybody now living on earth) he declares are whole "decades away"! (For more on superlative futurology read this and this.)

Not to put too fine a point on it, only a complete technoscientific illiterate or simply a fool letting irrational fears and fantasies get in the way of sensible judgment would pretend anything on Dvorsky's wish list was confidently within the reach of decades. The irrationality is manifested not least in the cocksure performance of public expertise while having at best an incredibly superficial grasp of the relevant science, but also having little to no understanding of the complexity of rhetoric, culture, law, politics in technodevelopmental change and diffusion. Again, this is the very field to which Dvorsky imagines himself to have devoted his life and for which io9 imagines him worthy of a regular public pulpit. With this in mind, I have left for last the mention of one more of the dozen "technologies" Dvorsky says "we need" so desperately and the lack the arrival of which has lead him to throw this public fit: "Reliable Measures of Individual Rationality."

Very much like Randroidal "Objectivist" ignoramuses, Robot Cultists in the various techno-transcendental sects of transhumanism, singularitarianism, techno-immortalism, nano-cornucopism, digital-utopianism and so on often stress the superior rationality of their implausible articles of faith. They have built whole online coffee-klatches around gurus promising to formulate superior laws of rationality or methods for overcoming bias. Like Randroids, faith-based futurists like to travel online precincts under self-congratulatory monikers like "Reason" and "Data Guy" and "Science God." Given the conspicuous divorce of their "championing of science" from scientific consensus in nearly every relevant field, given the unqualified certainty of their conviction in the face of its marginality from prevalent conceptions of the state of the art, the workings of institutions, the complexities of social change, the role of government, given the palpable panic at the heart of the death-denialism and body-loathing and terror at the contingency of life's exigencies and the permanent possibility of error that so many of them exhibit there remains, it seems to me, to say the least, a fraught relationship between this belief system and "rationality."

As one commenter has quipped in the Moot: "'Rational' is nothing more than Internet code for fringe beliefs at this point, isn't it?" It's crazy, but it's true!

The piece is a perfectly ridiculous futurological tantrum on the whole, which is what we have reliably come to expect of Dumb Dvorsky certainly. (Scroll down to the "George Dvorsky" entry in the Superlative Summary for enough ridicule to while away an afternoon.) But there is something to be said for the possibility that Dvorsky may be moving here from outright denial to a more productive next step -- namely, Admitting You Have A Problem. That the futurological toy pile reaches no closer to tech heaven this year than it ever has, year after year after year, however loudly Dvorsky and the rest of the futurological faithful have clapped and crowed, is a worthwhile thing for a Robot Cultist to notice at last -- credit where credit is due, somebody pat the nice man on the head!

Thank You Jan Hooks!

"Are You From the Government? We Need Your Help!": Joy Reid on Anti-Government Ideologues in Times of Crisis

Wednesday, October 08, 2014

Monday, October 06, 2014

Ayn Rand's Abiding Popularity and Influence Are Far From Inexplicable

She tells stupid people who think they are superior and privileged people who think they earned their privileges they are right.

Marriage Equality Now the Law of the Land for a Majority of Americans

If you are interested to know how someone like me who is a critic of all marriage -- I consider it a vestige of human trafficking, a spur to consumer conformism, buying into damaging infantile fantasies of completion through passive-aggressive co-dependence, and, yes, my partner of over thirteen years now agrees with me -- can nonetheless celebrate the marriage equality legal decisions and poll results bulldozing bigots across the country, let me recommend this post from six years ago: Marriage? No, Thanks. The Right to Marry? You Better Believe I'll Fight For It!

Real Men Wet Their Diapers Over ISIS And Ebola.

Apparently.

Sunday, October 05, 2014

Very Serious Robocalyptics

(Spoiler warning for tl;dr space cadets: read through to the penultimate paragraph to arrive at some serious anti-futurological muckraking.) A piece in Salon today, Our Science-Fiction Apocalypse: Meet the Scientists Trying to Predict the End of the World, will no doubt introduce the transhumanist futurist Nick Bostrom to many Americans who have not heard of him before. Although the piece is larded with qualifications and mild snark (the "science fiction" in the title should give some pause to the "meet the scientists" in the subtitle, for example), it is far from a critical expose and if anything is offered up in the spirit of a contrarian think-piece providing futurological food for thought -- and hence gives Bostrom and his fellow faith-based techno-transcendentalists far more benefit of the doubt than they deserve or we can safely stand for.

Nick Bostrom is described in the piece as a scholar concerned with "existential risks" and as the head of Oxford's Future of Humanity Institute. The reference to Oxford confers an immediate gloss of legitimacy on Bostrom's brand of futurism (entirely as it was meant to do), and it is important to note that Bostrom is not also described in the piece as a transhumanist, and the founder of the World Transhumanist Association and writer of the FAQ that continues to define that techno-transcendental "movement" for many of its members. That the World Transhumanist Association subsequently repackaged itself as a slick pop-tech site called Humanity-plus (non-member humans by comparison being of course merely humanity-minus), and that Bostrom went on to found the more reputably monikered stealth-transhumanist Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies provides what seems to me to be indispensable background restraining any acceptance out of hand of the scholarly legitimacy of Oxford's Future of Humanity Institute as well, especially once one discovers how many familiar faces from Bostrom's more robocultic earlier outings throng the ranks of his august corporate-sponsored Oxford-inflected effort.

A couple of years ago I wrote a piece entitled Insecurity Theater: How Futurological Existential-Risk Discourse Deranges Serious Technodevelopmental Deliberation, in which I proposed that the sort of existential-risk analysis Bostrom is promoting in the Salon piece represents "the other side of the counterfeit coin of expertise provided by [the] hyperbolic promotional/ self-promotional pseudo-discipline" of futurology. I usually critique superlative futurism/futurology of the kind associated with transhumanism, techno-immortalism, singularitarianism, digital-utopianism, nano-cornucopism, and so on as essentially faith-based initiatives, hyperbolizing consensus science and legible policy concerns into promises of techno-transcendence modeled on the omni-predicates of theological godhood, omniscience, omnipotence, omnibenevolence.

Existential risk discourse is the apocalyptic obverse to these futurological raptures, at once diverting attention from threatening criticisms of the belief system itself while also providing still more diversions from real science, actual harm-reduction policy-making, substantial problem-solving, serious deliberation over actually-existing dangers, risks, costs, inequities, crimes. In that earlier piece I warned: Any second an actually accountable health and safety administrator is distracted from actually existing problems by futurological hyperbole is a second stolen from the public good and the public health. Any public awareness of shared concerns or public understanding of preparedness for actually existing risks and mutual aid skewed and deranged by futurological fancies is a lost chance of survival and help for real people in the real world. In a world where indispensable public services are forced to function on shoestring budgets after a generation of market fundamentalist downsizing and looting and neglect, it seems to me that there are no extra seconds or extra dollars to waste on the fancies of Very Serious Futurologists in suits playing at being policy wonks. To put the point more concisely, existential-risk discourse seems to me an existential risk.

Am I over-reacting? Am I indulging yet again in "hate-speech" against the innocent futurist subcultures? Am I engaging -- as the robocultically-inclined charge again and again -- in name-calling without any substance to back my pessimistic and relativistic and nihilistic and "deathist" assertions? Am I being unfair to serious futurologists with important concerns about the public good? Judge for yourself. From the Salon piece itself:
“Global warming is very unlikely to produce an existential catastrophe,” Nick Bostrom, head of the Future of Humanity Institute at Oxford, told me when I met him in Boston last month. “The Stern report says it could hack away 20 percent of global GDP. That’s, like, how rich the world was 10 or 15 years ago. It would be lost in the noise if you look in the long term.” ... But, Bostrom believes, even the misery caused by this kind of decline pales in comparison to what could be inflicted by high-tech nightmares: bioengineered pandemic, nanotechnology gone haywire, even super-intelligent AI run amok.
While the author of the piece may seem to want to insert some sanity at this point by declaring (the obvious) that "[t]hese [are] exotic and unlikely-sounding disasters" he immediately confounds that expectation by completing the sentence with the observation that "these possibilities that are finally getting some attention." Whew! Finally! Won't somebody please think of the Robocalypse! Enough of this shilly-shallying about silly atmospheric carbon and human trafficking and arms proliferation 'n stuff!

The piece goes on to describe a burgeoning institutionalization of this sort of discourse with serious corporate-military dollars behind it and serious academic heft lending it prestige (it is not irrelevant to the latter that the neoliberal corporatization of the academy renders once-prestigious places of scholarship much more ready to eat their legacies for cash on the barrelhead):
In the last few years, a number of institutes have sprung up to begin to do serious research on the risks of emerging technology, some of them attached to the world’s most prestigious universities and stocked with famous experts. In addition to FHI, there is the Center for the Study of Existential Risk at Cambridge and the Future of Life Institute at MIT, along with the Lifeboat Foundation, the Foresight Institute and several others. After years of neglect, the first serious efforts to prevent techno-apocalypse may be underway.
It is unfortunate that the Salon piece provided no links to the organizations listed here as undertaking these serious efforts. For example, The Lifeboat Foundation which is soliciting participants in, among other things, its "LifeShield Bunkers program [which] is a compliment to our Space Habitats program. It is a fallback position in case programs such as our BioShield and NanoShield fail globally or locally. A bunker can be quite large, such as Biosphere 2. A large bunker would be a place where babies are born and children play and go to school... Let us know if you wish to participate in a local LifeShield Bunker. We will contact you if and when we find a cluster of interested people in your area. Read The Case for Survival Colonies: Soliciting Colonists." Very serious! Or The Foresight Institute, devoted to Eric Drexler's promises of a super-abundance and near-immortalization "technology... based upon putting atoms where we want them rather than upon handling 'atoms in unruly herds[.]'" Again, very serious! For those who read my blog with any regularity you will find many familiar faces recurring in the advisory boards and recommended readings of these organizations (both the ones that are striving for mainstream respectability and the ones that are letting their futurological freak flags fly -- the talent pool for this brand of moonshine isn't exactly capacious), just scroll down the names of the futurologists who have come in for analysis, and no small amount of ridicule, in this anti-futurological archive of mine, and you will find most of them there.

All that said, I will concede Salon's point, to a point. This business is indeed serious -- serious as a heart attack. The ramification of these institutional spaces for futurological flim-flammery is taking place across a terrain in which think-tanks have already displaced or deranged the role of the academy as a source of rigorous scholarly support and critique of public policy deliberation (and even those with absolutely valid critiques of the academy -- stratified as it is by sexism, white-racism, and plutocratic upward-fail -- can grant the force of this point). Indeed, rather than view the latest arrival of futurology to the pseudo-scholarly commandeering of and feasting on public deliberation as a particularly new phenomenon, I would insist instead on the role of a futurological/instrumental/computational logic especially congenial to the ends of corporate-military "competitiveness" -- a logic originating in no small part out of the host of speculative pseudo-disciplines connected to the inequitable distributions of costs, risks, and benefits of market futures -- in the original and abiding corporate-military think-tankification of the public sphere in the first place. To these developments should be added the recent entrance of faith-based techno-transcendental aspirations like coding Robot-Gods or "solving death" into the budgets of (what now passes for) elite technology companies, like Google and Apple. It is no surprise that the celebrity CEOs of venture capitalism whose skim and scam operations have thrust some of them into lotto-luxe multi-billionaire precincts they rationalize through assertions of sooper-genius would find themselves attracted to infantile fantasies and facile pseudo-scientific formulations of faith-based futurisms -- but at some point throwing real money and directing real media spotlights at this nonsense threatens to have an effect in the real world.

The "Sixth" of my Ten Reasons to Take Robot Cultists Seriously goes right to the heart of this concern:
As Margaret Mead famously insisted, "Never underestimate the power of a small group of committed people to change the world." The example of the neoliberals of the Mont Pelerin Society reminds us that a small band of ideologues committed to discredited notions that happen to benefit and compliment the rich can sweep the world to the brink of ruin and the example of the neoconservatives reminds us that a small band of committed people can prevail even when they are peddling not only discredited but frankly ridiculous and ugly notions. Futurologists pretend that hypberbolic marketing projections are the same thing as serious technoscience policy deliberation, which is a gesture enormously familiar to the investor class and the technology sector's customary membership, and the futurologists inevitably cast rich entrepreneurs as the protagonists of history, which is a gesture enormously attractive to the skimmers and scammers and celebrity CEOs of the technology sector's essentially narcissistic culture. Although their various predictions are rarely more accurate than those of chimpanzees at typewriters, although their various transcendental glossy-mag editorials and tee-vee ready techno-rapture narratives are rarely more scientific in their actual substance than those of evangelical preachers, although their dog and pony show sounds almost exactly the same now as it did five years ago, ten years ago, fifteen years ago, twenty years ago, twenty-five years ago as they still drag out the same old tired litany (super-parental robot gods! genetic fountains of youth! cheap nanobotic superabundance! better than real immersive VR treasure caves! soul-uploading into shiny robot bodies!), and all with the same fervent True Belief, the same breathless insistence that this is all New! the same static repetition that change is accelerating up! up! up! it is not really surprising to discover that the various organizations associated with superlative futurology are attracting more and more money and support and attention from the rich narcissistic CEOs of the technology sector whose language they have been speaking and whose egos they have been stroking so assiduously for years and for whom they provide such convenient rationalizations for elite-incumbent rule. You better believe that, ridiculous and crazy though they may be, the Robot Cultists with well funded organizations (like the Future of Humanity Institute at Oxford, Global Business Network, Long Now Foundation, Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technology, Singularity Summit to name a few) to disseminate their pet wish-fulfillment fantasies and authoritarian rationalizations can do incredible damage in the real world.
It is easy to find yourself smugly shaking your head at the stark realities implied by the concession in the Salon piece that, "Some of these institutes have not even started to do research yet; they’re still raising funds." You don't say! Why, that's like declaring "some evangelicals haven't researched their fire and brimstone claims; they're too busy passing the collection plate"! But the funding these organizations are starting to attract from corporate sponsors and the derangement of the terms of public policy discourse introduced by the multiplication of techno-transcendental figures, frames, conceits, narratives are all too real whatever their palpable idiocy -- just look how eager people are to describe unintelligent artifacts as "smart" to the denigration of their own intelligence, just look how eager people are to describe as "disruptive" completely conventional right-wing deregulatory schemes, just look how regularly the public will describe the stasis of our unsustainable conformist consumer socioculture as a period of "accelerating growth," in each case a futurological reframing in the service of elite-incumbent interests and to the utter detriment of sense.

New to me from reading the piece, and I must say enormously interesting, was its observation that "[t]he field [of futurological existential risk discourse] has benefited from a well-informed patron, the Estonian entrepreneur and computer programmer Jaan Tallinn, co-founder of Skype... [who] told me that his concern with the future of humanity began in 2009, when a lawsuit between Skype and eBay left him temporarily sidelined. Finding himself with millions of dollars in the bank and no obligations, he spent his time reading through the web site Less Wrong, 'a community blog devoted to refining the art of human rationality.'" It is very interesting that any of this is supposed to qualify Mr. Tallinn as "well-informed" in some way. Does the article tell us that Tallinn spent this time earning a degree in some legible scientific field in a university or doing research in a laboratory setting or consulting with policymakers beholden to majorities or even coding usable software or building prototypes of workable devices? No, no, no, no, no. Instead we hear of a techbro sitting on a pile of lucky-lucre with time on his hands reading some guru wannabe's internet manifesto about the coming of the Robot God and thinking this puts the Keys of History in his hands. Very serious, well-informed. About Tallinn's singularitarian guru Eliezer Yudkowsky and his Less Wrong coterie you may find it enlightening to read A Robot God Apostle's Creed for the Less Wrong Set, or Deep Thoughts on Democracy from Eliezer Yudkowsky, or So Not A Cult. I did a little more digging and discovered soon enough that when Jaan Tallinn isn't giving his money to futurologists who would worry us about Robocalypse he is devoted to the work of "a medical-consulting firm" called MetaMed which he founded and which received an infusion of start-up cash from none other than market-libertopian and singularitarian Robot Cultist Peter Thiel.

I will leave it as an exercise for the reader to think through, by way of conclusion, the political implications of championing "personalized medicine" for the super-rich when universal single-payer basic healthcare hasn't arrived after more than a century of heartbreaking mass social struggle backed by a consensus of healthcare expertise, or to think what eugenic transhumanists may have in mind when they speak of providing client performance enhancement. No doubt the countless millions of people who die from treatable or neglected diseases because they cannot afford basic healthcare or because they live in over-exploited regions of the world without access to basic healthcare does not rise to the level of an "existential threat" that would attract the notice of our futurological faithful -- even if every single human being who dies for the lack of healthcare available to others is a human being who potentially could have contributed their measure of imagination and intelligence and effort to the solution of shared problems that really do imperil humanity as well as to the archive of creative expressivity that makes life worth living for us all.

More on Irreligiosity

Yesterday, on the blog I pointed out:
Although I am an atheist myself, I am personally less interested in the political significance of the state of explicit atheist identifications than I am in the vast and rising self-description, "nonreligious." The weirdly sectarian skirmishes around precisely correct atheist identifications seem to me as ugly and useless as the religious kind, for the most part, especially when it is white guys doing the skirmishing online, but the rising numbers of people who are simply doing without god -- a good word for which might be, what do you know, a-theist, "without god" -- as any kind of important organizing idea in their actual daily lives (whether or not they feel particularly disposed to argue or even dwell on the question) seems to me to be contributing to the very wholesome secularization, diversification, planetization of American society.
This was followed by an exchange in the Moot (upgraded and adapted here) that seemed worthy of posting on its own. Friend-of-blog "esebian" worried a bit about my cavalier treatment of atheist belief, asking:
And what if the irreligious masses just join up with the next, trendier destructive numinal delusion precisely because they don't subscribe to a rigorous mental framework that doesn't need gods? "I know there's no gods because..." always trumps "I don't care much for them Jeebus 'n' stuff".
To this I responded predictably with much more in the cavalier line of the pragmatist on belief:
If pushed, I daresay many of the "nonreligious" would already shrug and declare themselves believers of some kind -- and that the philosophers would categorize them agnostic or deist or Xtian-who-goes-to-Church-only-twice-a-decade or what have you (also true of no few of the presumably confidently faithful, when push comes to shove).

Often, even the explicit assertion of belief in god really translates, if you squint or live with it long enough to grasp its pragmatic substance, to an ascription better understood as a matter of morals (ie, "I try to be a good person," "my parents taught me the right thing to do") or taste or some such subcultural signaling (fish on Fridays, scarves just so, different provocations to guilt).

I certainly don't think dogmatism or certainty in these matters insulates anybody from changes of heart, or that folks who do without god in the actual quotidian substance of their lives are somehow more susceptible to priestly con-artists. Heck, just consider how much of the space of this blog is given over to exposures of the faith-based techno-transcendentalism of futurists and techno-utopians many of whom actually would declare themselves "knowers" that there are no gods and would agree with you about the special force of such "knowing"? Look at their flabbergasting serial credulities; why, they glom onto trendy numinal delusions like flies on shit! If anything, knowledgeable certainty makes people more brittle and brutal than confident or reassuring in my experience.

I say this in part because I honestly don't think the person who fancies they "know" there are no gods actually knows anything, in any logically or scientifically relevant sense -- and certainly I think it is moonshine to believe such pretenses of knowing "trump" much of anything in some objective sense.

I tend nonetheless to think that is the sort of nonsense those of us who read philosophy tell ourselves to feel good about ourselves when we want to pretend we are more than a fandom for a particular brand of arcane literature. I say this, by the way, as someone who has devoted a lifetime to the reading and teaching of philosophy, mind you, and as someone who knows he came by this attitude mostly from philosophy and critical theory.

Philosophy can clarify things or provide unique joys for those of us who have the bug. I'm far from knocking it. I'm an atheist, but I daresay religion can do the same for those who have that bug. I'm not inclined to argue with them unless they seek to pretend religious belief has the status of science or provides a license for moralizing misconstrued as politics. And in my experience, those pathologies tend to come most from those who think they "know" things religiously they don't really know either.
When I say that I am more heartened by the demographic swelling of the "nonreligious" category than by the vicissitudes of the presumably more exacting "atheist" designation I affirm for myself, at least part of what I am getting at is the hunch that a certain worse than useless construal of "knowing" that cashes out in false certitudes is going out of favor, in a way that would inflect the beliefs of the variously religious and nonreligious alike, and one that feeds the wholesome secularization, diversification, and planetization I mentioned in the first post.