amor mundi

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

Monday, September 01, 2014

Last of the Grading...

...finally finishing up the last of the grading for the summer's last intensive term. Blogging low to no for a little while. Resuming sanity soon. Comparative sanity.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Science Fiction Is Not Agitprop For Your "The Future"

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

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

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

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

Or, The Lawnmower Man -- AGAIN!

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

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

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

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

Quite beyond the paradoxical figuration of the brain dumbing mind numbing stasis of their endlessly regurgitated futurological catechism as some kind of register "shock levels" and "accelerating change" (or even the "acceleration of acceleration"!) -- a paradox not unconnected with the skim-and-scam upward fail con artistry of tech startups describing as "disruptions" their eager amplications of the deregulatory looting and fraudulent financialization of the already catastrophically prevailing neoliberal status quo -- it really is extraordinary to grasp how superannuated the presumably shattering provocations of the Robot Cultists really turn out to be, the most ham handed reiterations of the most stock sf characters and conceits imaginabl
 
Just as Star Trek explored current politics allegorically (notoriously sometimes somewhat clumsily) in many sfnal plots, so too their explorations of the sfnal archive were in my view reflections in the present on the impact of ongoing sociocultural forces (materialism, industrialism, computationalism) on abiding values and notions of identity and so on.
 
Like all great literature, sf at its best comments on the present, on present problems and possibilities, and the open (promising, threatening) futurity that inheres in the present. Of course, plenty of authors and readers may have said that their good sf was about "The Future," but this confused locution often obscures the ways in which their work actually engaged futurity in ways that exceeded authorial intentions and understanding. I will go so far as to say that no great sf has ever been about "The Future," predictive of "The Future," agitprop for "The Future. Of course, extrapolation is a technique in the sf toolkit (as in the satirist's and the fabulist's), but predictions and hypotheses and the rest never make for great or even good sf: To read sf as prophetic agitprop for parochialisms denominated "The Future" always reveals a crappy writer or a crappy reader. 
 
Star Trek actually did and does still inspire mass movements -- but surely not all or even more than a few of its fans thought or think their enthusiasm for the specificities of the show's characters or plots or furniture, or even for the secular scientific liberal multiculturalism of its values, expect that they constitute somehow the kernel of a literal proto-federation that will bring its inventions into existence through the shared fervency of their fandom at conventions.
 
I often chide transhumanoids as pseudo-scientific scam artists peddling boner pill and anti-aging kreme scams but amplified from late-nite infomercials to outright phony religions faith-based initiatives. But I also often chide them as consumer fandoms of the particularly crappy sf genres of the corporate press release and the futurological scenario.
 
As to the latter, it seems relevant to point out that the problem of the transhumanoids isn't that I think they have terrible taste in sf (anybody who gets off on Toffler, Kurzweil, and venture capitalist spiels has execrable taste whatever their other character flaws) it's that they are an sf fandom predicated on not even getting what sf is about at the most basic level. 
 
Star Trek was not predicting or building a vision of "The Future," but exposing the futurity inhering in the diversity of beings in the present, reminding us of the wonder and promise and danger of that ever-open futurity, understanding that its audience corralled together a diversity out of whom also-open next-presents would be made. Like all true sf, like all true literature, Star Trek solicits our more capacious identification with the diversity of beings with whom we share the present world, the better to engage that diversity in the shaping of shared present worlds to come.
 
Champions of science -- who treat science as pseudo-scientific PR and faith-based techno-transcendentalism? Sf fandoms -- who don't even get that sf is literature? Is it any wonder these clueless careless dumbasses think they are the smartest guys in any room?

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Are Both Advocates and Critics of Transhuman Techno-Transcendentalism Changing?

Upgraded and adapted from the Moot, "JimF" notices the discussion taking place in response to a critique of transhumanism over at Richard Jones' Soft Machines:
I see some of the heavy-hitters (or at least the eager-beaver Web-wide movement spin controllers) have weighed in on Jones' post. Giulio Prisco sez "What's the matter with wishful thinking?" and Luke Parrish sez "Honestly, I think you're reading too much into this [i.e., the connection between contemporary transhumanism and age-old religious aspirations]."
Part of what intrigues me in those comments to which you have drawn our attention is the extent to which some transhumanists now seem to be conceding as obviously, commensensically true points they used to describe as nothing but ad hominem attacks on my part when I made them.

Prisco assertively avows here (and has done for some years now) the indispensability of faith and New Age-mystical norms and forms in transhumanist/ singlaritarian/ techno-immortalist futurologies. Parrish avows (as if this is the most natural thing in the world) that transhumanist "thought-leaders" are just slapping together anything that sells more books and he also simply assumes that fear of death drives quite a lot of techno-transcendental belief and energy. Needless to say, I agree with all of these observations.

For years now I have pointed to the tonalities of religiosity, PR-hype, and death-denialism lodged in the assumptions, aspirations, and arguments of so much futurological discourse. As you know, these charges tend to have been greeted with outrage, righteous denial, denunciation, charges that I am indulging in name-calling rather than criticism, and on and on and on.

Although I am an atheist myself, I have no particular interest in denouncing the aesthetic idiosyncrasies of the variously faithful.

It is when religious faith tries to trump the verdicts of science or pretend it is simply an alternative kind of science or policy framework that I expose its falsities and dangers.

It is when religious moral practice tries to trump the reconciliations of politics or pretend it is simply an alternative kind of politics (let alone a democratizing politics) that I expose its falsities and dangers.

If the transhumanists are just an idiosyncratic and marginal faith-based community I might giggle at a South Park parody of their beliefs and I might worry about abuses if they assume authoritarian tonalities in their defensiveness, but apart from that I could scarcely care less how their members pursue their private perfections.

If the transhumanists are just another fandom for futurological pop texts -- that least creative and least original and least demanding of the sf genres -- I might use them as a sad symptom of acquiescence to corporate-militarist gizmo-fetishizing consumer pseudo-culture, but apart from that I could scarcely care less about what people want to be excited about to get them through the night (if I can celebrate Janeway-7of9 shippers, I can give a thumbs up to those who want to navel gaze over fictional traversible wormholes, Holodeck Heavens or magic nano lamps).

And so, I do indeed critique the regular efforts of Robot Cultists to peddle their shenanigans as a warranted science practice or legitimate policy discourse or real identity politics rather than as a loose constellation of faith-based sects and consumer fandoms.

To the extent that some transhumanoid/singularitarian membership organizations have attracted serious corporate funding (Thiel, Musk, Google) or legitimate institutional support (Oxford, Stanford, Google), I think it is important to be vigilant about the Robot Cultists: As I often say, the lesson of the Neocons is that palpably silly ideas with money and plutocratic networking behind them can still do flabbergasting damage in the world if you don't pay attention to them and connect the dots in ways that expose the players and limit their impacts in real time.

But most of all, I also think superlative futurological discourses are clarifyingly illustrative extremities of what are more prevailing justificatory corporate-military discourses playing out across the public field of deceptive, hyperbolic PR forms (age-defying skim kremes, cars as cyborgic agency amplifiers, get rich quick schemes, sociopathic self-esteem and management seminars) to neoliberal/neoconservative think-tank rationalizations (global digital finance scams, global development as hi-tech boondoggle investment debt coupled to deregulatory looting, global free market boom pitches backed by US military robo-info-biowar hardware).

I do think these mainstream reactionary, reductionist, fetishistic, triumphalist, immaterialist, industrialist, eugenic, technocratic ideologies do incredible harm both to real people's lives and to our efforts to make sense of what is really happening in the world. Exposing ridiculous robocultism to ridicule can help expose what is ridiculous and pernicious in these mainstream discourses which often seem unassailable and even invisible so prevalent, so hegemonic, so commonsensical have they become.

For a more fully elaborated but still relatively concise formulation of this critique, read my Futurological Discourses and Posthuman Terrains in Existenz.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Truthy

Political gaffes are not a matter of accidentally telling injurious truths, but of enabling the injurious narratives of opponents.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Teaching Transhumanist Critique

A sudden spike in traffic toward my Condensed Critique of Transhumanism today revealed that David Golumbia is reading some of it in the latest lecture of his Future/Human/Fiction course this fall at the Virginia Commonwealth University. The timing of the spike also provided reassuring corroboration of my hunch that students across the country turn to the day's assigned readings at most minutes before class time, and that this curious phenomenon is not confined to the Bay Area. I must say the course looks enormously informative and fun. I've taught the Octavia Butler and Margaret Atwood texts at Berkeley myself and they yielded really energetic discussions. Of course, what I really want to know is what students made of my stuff! I have a funny feeling I insulted a couple of his students in the Moot today, now that I think on it, but that's what they get for inanely complaining that I use words that hurt their heads or that I obviously haven't read the transhumanist texts I link and cite in my critiques of them. Of course, I don't teach my own writing because it seems a bit tacky and even rather immoral to me to try to whomp up a readership out of folks you are evaluating professionally, and so I actually have little sense of how my arguments play in intellectually engaged settings among people who don't already have a horse in the race as either Robocultic True Believers or Robocultic Skeptics. (I can assure Golumbia, by the way, that I decided to teach his cyberlibertarianism piece in my graduate seminar on the politics and anti-politics of design discourses at the San Francisco Art Institute this term long before I realized he was doing me the honor of teaching something by me!)

Cameras Don't Tell Us The Truth

We tell cameras the truth.

We Don't Have A Strategery Yet

Like the one where Republicans kept destroying everything everywhere all the time. Those were good times.

Is George Lucas A Barbarian?

George Lucas:
People who alter or destroy works of art and our cultural heritage for profit or as an exercise of power are barbarians, and if the laws of the United States continue to condone this behavior, history will surely classify us as a barbaric society.
Lucas refuses to allow the National Film Registry to preserve the actual 1977 version of Star Wars, pretending that the version that had an impact none of his subsequent solo efforts ever did or ever could was unfinished. His endless larding of films with crappy videogame CGI and infantile slapstick gags and leaden fanwanking exposition to render his whole bloated execrable saga consistent may indeed finish the film for good. I found the original film enjoyable -- and it actually mattered to me as a kid who watched it in a theater on my twelfth birthday on a screen the size of a football field. Of course, the prequels are literally unwatchably bad, and in consequence Return of the Jedi now seems mostly unwatchable as well, as forgivable missteps in that movie now seem like anticipations of the awfulness of the prequels and so have gotten retroactively implicated in their crimes (the camp resonance of a few moments -- like "It's a trap!" -- and, of course, the Emperor's scenery chewing evil monologues alone save the movie for me), and at this point the bullying sexism in The Empire Strikes Back makes long stretches of the best in the bunch nearly unwatchable for me too. Lucas can do what he wants with his movies, of course (the opening quote refers to the profitable colorization of classic films by those who did not have a hand in their making), but the original Star Wars was a cultural phenomenon. That really happened and archivists and historians shouldn't have to contend with Lucas' bad taste and elephantine ego in doing their work of doing justice to that reality. Once released into the world, the world has its way with our work, the changing receptions of the work collaborate in the significance of which it is capable. All actually relevant and living works of art are unfinished in this way. Lucas' effort to control the circulation of his best work is of a piece with the amplifying awfulness of the rest of his work -- closing himself off from the world he contributes less and less worth taking up by the world. The world will win this contest, and when Lucas vanishes it will the archivists and historians and critics he disdains who will be the likeliest to save the trace of his part in the contest that might live in worlds to come.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Arturo Galster, R.I.P.

SF Bay Guardian
To call seminal SF perfomer and alpha theater aficionado Arturo Galster merely a "drag queen" is to do his range -- from the legendary Vegas in Space movie and pitch-perfect live-sung Pasty Cline interpretations to his recent technicolor turns with the Thrillpeddlers -- a disservice. But his name will always call to mind that moment in the late '80s and early '90s when SF's drag scene unmoored itself from polite old school diva kabuki into a squall of gloriously punky, ironic camp.

Today's Random Wilde

No artist desires to prove anything. Even things that are true can be proved.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Back to School

Today I return to teaching in the City. Things are feeling more than usually weedy because I haven't finished grading finals from my second summer intensive at Berkeley and the overlap is a bit hectic. The undergraduate course I'm teaching Tuesdays this fall is a critical theory survey rather like the intensive just completed at Berkeley, and so prep is not as demanding as it might have been. The graduate seminar on the politics/antipolitics of Design discourses I'm presiding over on Wednesdays will be a bit more demanding. Anyway, pacing in the regular academic year is gentler than summer and so I am assuming all this will settle down soon enough. Be that as it may, blogging may be low to no, especially on Wednesdays this fall. We'll see.

Monday, August 25, 2014

I Got Mine Tarians

PoliticalWire:
A new Pew Research survey finds that just 11% of Americans describe themselves as libertarian and actually know what the term means.
I'm shocked that even 11% of white dudes who mistake their privileges for accomplishments admit that about themselves.

Concision Decision

If nothing else, this long summer of microblogging should shut up those "too long, can't read" dillholes who used to complain that I am incapable of writing concisely or that my blog was filled with unskimmable theory arias because I want to impress illiterates and think that would impress them, although I cannot for the life of me figure out why anybody would either want or think anything of the kind.

Our Digital Devices Are Documenting Stasis Not Progress

I wonder whether the ongoing proliferation of everyday documentary digital images will make it harder to peddle the ideological deceptions of accelerating change and inevitable progress as kids see their parents as kids who lived and looked pretty much exactly like they do.

Booman's MoDodine Oration

He kinda sorta spoils the joke with the title, but his piece is pretty good. Let us hope it is but the first. If nothing else, reading the rhetoric that mattered from Cicero to Twain to Lee Papa disabuses civility scolds that they are raising abused standards.

Richard Jones Critiques Transhumanism

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

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Neoliberal Neoconservatism

If liberalism and conservatism are a distinction, neoliberalism and neoconservatism are a loop. There is no neoliberalism without neoconservatism. Every "free" global market is maintained by the threat and reality of global arms and armies.

More Dispatches from Libertopia here.

Profits Over People: The Lie of "Routine" Tear Gas

When police choose to use tear gas that is objectively harmful to people to respond to threats (often paranoid) of property crimes like looting and vandalism it is important to grasp that their choice is always unambiguously the choice of elite profit-taking over popular citizenship. It is not enough to critique the militarization of police: What we are seeing more specifically is the corporate-militarization of police (and, crucially, prisons), which prioritizes the policing of profit through the policing of people.

Melissa Harris-Perry is indispensably resisting the ongoing effort to routinize tear gas as "harmless" "crowd control." The physiological and psychological effects of tear gas are far from harmless. The "crowd" in question is We The People, and the "control" in question is the violent curtailment of Constitutionally supported free speech and free assembly.

As I said, threats to property are usually exaggerated, and often paranoid, but Professor Harris-Perry points out that even when there really is property damage arising from a popular assembly the choice of police to harm citizens indiscriminately with tear gas is far from self-evidently justifiable -- even if prevailing media narratives seem all too eager to take such justification for granted in the name of "police protection" or stopping "mob violence."

It is far from justifiable to harm an innocent majority in the policing of a guilty minority -- although, again, prevailing media narratives seem all too eager to tar the totality of legitimate mass public protests with the brush of looting or vandalism happening at its margins. One of the reasons capital punishment cannot be justified, for example, is because the practice inevitably entails the execution of the innocent.

However, harmful measures like tear gassing are always a disproportionate response even to the reality of property crimes. International laws already forbid the use of tear gas in the policing of crowds in the context of foreign interventions. In a free society, nobody would be tear-gassed ever, because tear gas does real harm, and that real harm should matter at least as much and surely much more than the also real harm done by petty theft and petty vandalism of property -- quite apart from the fact that majorities innocent of the latter real harm are being subjected to the former real harm, which makes the bad worse, and quite apart from the fact that the former real harm tends to be exaggerated if not manufactured whole cloth in the first place, which make even worse the already bad that was already worse.

To continue the capital punishment analogy above, stealing cigars or selling single cigarettes on the street without a license may be petty crimes, and rightly so, but neither is a capital crime outside of tyrannies -- and in any society where their policing routinely eventuates in execution tyranny becomes a more readily applicable designation for it. (And I guess I'm setting aside the question of deliberate exposure to secondhand smoke as violent assault in these cigar/cigarette analogies, even though that connects up to the violence of tear gassing pretty obviously, too. Oh, well.)

Technofix From Technofixation

Prior to the positing of any "technofix" for a political problem is always the technofixation that disavows its politics to subvert politics.

More Futurological Brickbats here.

The Opacity of Transparency

Every panopticism is always a pancryptism: every transparency is enabled by opacities.

More Futurological Brickbats here.

Also, scroll to the topic "Surveillance" in The Superlative Summary.

Body-Cams As Technofix for Police Violence

Body-Cameras as the ready technofix for the political problem of police violence disavows the politics policing the significance of surveilled images. It is all too easy for the police to frame an avalanche of mediated spam, flak and spin as "transparency": After all, the same stratifications enabling police violence will articulate the interpretation of its image.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Galt Assault

Ever notice how many upward sailing risk takers turn out to be upward failing risk fakers?

Thursday, August 21, 2014

California Is Not Texas

via Calitics:
[T]hree million dollars is really just a drop in the bucket for... the many undocumented children and their legal expenses... Gov. Jerry Brown, Attorney General Kamala Harris and Legislative leaders announced legislation Thursday that sets aside the money for non-profits that provide legal help to unaccompanied minors currently in California. "These young people have legal rights and responsibilities, but they cannot fully participate in complex immigration proceedings without an attorney," Harris said. "It is critical that these children, many of whom are fleeing extreme violence in Central America, have access to due process and adequate legal representation." While Rick Perry is sending the national guard to the border, California leaders are doing what they can to help these children.

Scattered Speculations on a Twitterscrum with Robot Cultists Andre@ and Rachel Haywire

I have always found it curious the way, in the give and take of a realtime argument, techno-transcendentalists cheerleading about mind-uploading info-soul immortalization schemes and about coding history-ending superintelligent Robot Gods and the like, cannot help but crow whenever we arrive at the inevitable point in the argument when I point out that I am not a scientist. For a fairly representative example of the phenomenon, from a twitter spat I found myself in with a Robot Cultist last night, observe:
I am, of course, a philosopher and rhetorician by training, and never ever pretend otherwise in the least. Since so much of the force of futurological discourses depends on their recourse to metaphors, hyperbolizations, reframing commonplaces as novelties, naturalizations of contested terms, distractions from rather than solutions to conspicuous problems, consoling subcultural signaling and appeals to identity, and so on, it has always seemed to me that my training provides a useful critical perspective rather than a disqualification. The cackling delight with which my status as a non-scientist gets trotted out by the futurological faithful who declare me incapable of engaging in the relevant "technical" specifications endorsing their triumphalism is all the more bizarre given how many of them are no more practicing scientists than I am. Time and time again, a query for their science degree, current lab, or published papers goes unanswered or reveals I am in the presence of yet another coder fancying themselves an honorary biologist, plasma physicist, civic engineer, and political economist as a result. Last night's interlocutor was just such a coder. From my Futurological Brickbats: LXX. I know enough to know I don't know enough to be a scientific authority, while futurologists know enough to know that most people don't know enough to know the difference when they pretend to be scientific authorities.

Beyond this deceptive and also probably self-deceptive gambit, I also have to say that there is something that feels to me not only pseudo-scientific but actively anti-scientific in the Wall of Words partisans of cryonics and uploading and drextechian nano-abundance and the rest like to fling up in the name of "the technical discussion" to silence criticisms of conceptual and otherwise rhetorical sleights of hand on which their rationalizations tend ultimately to depend. Confronted with a critic who exposes the fairly conspicuous religiosity of their fervent assertions about the techno-transcendental arrival at immortality as info-spirit-selves in Holodeck Heaven under the ministrations of a post-biological post-parental superintelligent Robot God and with omni-competent nano or femto matter-mulching Anything-for-Nothing machines at their every whim's disposal, these faith-based futurologists like to retreat as quickly as possible to the prosaic. Cryonicists start lecturing you about the harmless revival of the drowned and of organs cryopreserved for transatlantic treks to surgery, nano-cornucopiasts handwave about the productive factory floor of the molecule, SENS longevists blather on about the new car smell of a century old roadster repaired and maintained by a loving hobbyist, AI-deadenders keep winning Chess and Jeopardy with glorified abacuses with database access, and on and on and on.

Of course, quite a lot of the science and technique these futurologists are drawing on argumentatively is perfectly well warranted as far as that goes. As a matter of fact, my impression is that most of the science the priestly experts of the Robot Cult archipelago lean on amounts to fairly undergraduate tech talk, sound as far as it goes but never particularly advanced. And their preferences in the matter of the "advanced" tend to incline more in the direction of the Aquarian, I find, their cutting-edge looks to be rather, er, cosmic.

Let us delve deeper into an aria offered up by my interlocutor last night. First, read through the twitter scroll, and then my reading and response will follow. (I am fairly confident, by the way that "Andre@" would regard this very sequence as their strongest most triumphant portion of the debate. This selection is not offered up in an effort to ridicule through expurgated editorial shenanigans on my part, and I do hope none of the directly interested parties would perceive otherwise. The tweets are clickable and fuller reconstructions of what was a much longer and ramifying twitterscrum should be possible for the diligent): Got that? You will notice that my "strong claim" is the suggestion that, given all the questions we have about the relations of brain processes to the phenomena we describe as "intelligence" and "mind," modesty may be more warranted than declarations of certainty that software minds indistinguishable from human minds are obviously possible and immortalizing uploads of info-selves on the horizon no less obviously. I am someone who celebrates science as much as the next geek, but I do think our discoveries raise more and more questions rather than providing rationalizations for faith in wish-fulfillment fantasies. Notice, I am explicitly materialist in these exchanges in a way that leads me to think it probably actually matters that what we mean by minds in the real world have always been specifically materialized in biological brains and social formations and to think we should qualify, to say the least, expectations that non-biological non-social materializations will be "indistinguishable" from human minds or even intelligibly described as "minds" at all. I am not the one blathering on about superintelligent AIs, info-souls, cyberangel avatars and so on. But presumably I am the one indulging in "bullshit argument by assertion"? Presumably I am the one "desperately grasping at magic pixie dust"?

I am far from denying the warranted assertions my interlocutor breathlessly exhaled in the Wall of Words made to loom before me last night, tweet by tweet, block by block. Indeed, most of the science scribbled on the Wall is well-worn enough that for all I know it was being read off the promotional descriptions on the back of a set of Cosmos blu-rays (which I own myself, by the way, despiser of science that I am). As I have said, futurologists tend to retreat in such moments to fairly undergraduate science in performing their technical preening acts. The rhetorician in me cannot help but notice that the argumentative force of the tirade does indeed derive in important part from the illustrative scenery painting of figures -- "supervene" in the first one, "fix[ation]" in the next, "computab[ility]" in the next, "extrem[ity]" in the next, and so on. The definition of materialist in the first post is idiosyncratic in the extreme, and hardly dispositive. Brazening it out nonetheless is something a rhetorician can appreciate as commonplace, needless to say. However warranted the string of observations following, there is nothing in what we are well warranted to believe we know in them to warrant the further declarations that "behavior... *is fixed by known physics* -- there is *nothing* [emphasis in the original, but I would add it if it weren't there --d] mysterious or unknown about the behavior" or that our knowledge as it is renders assertions about mind-uploads "perfectly [emphasis added --d] justified" or that "[t]he unknowns in physics are all [emphasis added --d] under extreme conditions" (famous last words) or that "[t]he only [emphasis added --d] thing that matters under the conditions that occur in the brain is ordinary" as we conceive it, and so on. The criteria on the basis of which we select as warranted the beliefs that would yield prediction and control are always defeasible and never provide grounds for the unqualified superlatives of "only" "all" "nothing" "perfect" that freight the discourse of the faithful far more than the scientific.

One of the reasons that vanishingly few actually qualified, actually practicing scientists in the actually relevant fields associated with the confident super-predicated assertions of futurologists will have anything whatsoever to do with these superlative futurologists is that their robocultic tech talk is too rudimentary to be of much interest to scientists while the spirited projections where all the robocultic action is are far too wild and wooly and unwarranted for them to take seriously. Contrary to the insistence of cryonicists and mind-uploaders who decry the corpse-coddling "deathism" and "sheeple" timidity of those who dare not Challenge! Death! (those who, you know, recognize the fact that all humans are mortal and that death denialism may yield an irrational death in life but will not render the spellcaster immortal in fact) the reason biologists and gerontologists and lab techs administering diagnostic brain scans aren't in the futurological megachurch pews is that there simply is a whole hell of a lot of distance between where we are and where we would have to be to begin even to contemplate modest variations on superlative futurological aspirations.

Again, of course it is true that there are enormously interesting problems and possibilities for better sensors and materials in biochemistry; and of course it is true that there are ferocious hopes and fraught hurdles for better therapies in brain diagnostic media and organ cryopreservation and gene therapies; and of course it is true that planetary digitally networked data framing, surveillance, marketing, and finance introduce extraordinary dangers of error and attack and crucial demands for accountability and user-friendliness for software designers, and so on. Although Robot Cultists retreat to this register to ground their wish-fulfillment fantasies in something like an everyday "reality effect," it is crucial to recognize that no futurologist qua futurologist has ever made a problem-solving contribution at this level of technicality (it could happen accidentally or incidentally, I suppose).

The substance of futurology consists in its reframing of such problems and accomplishments as stepping stones along a path to super-predicated capacities providing personal transcendence. This, in turn, is simply a reductio ad absurdum or amplification into the cadences of outright religiosity of the already prevalent deceptions and hyperbole of advertizing norms and forms as well as the ideology promulgated by self-esteem pop psychology for the consumer masses and management seminars for the actual and aspirational venture capital/"creative" class minority. Age Defying Skin Kreme! Find Your Inner Winner! Grasping the nature and consequences of these formations depends far less than you might expect on technical debates over the scientific claims on which Robot Cultists pin their hopes (especially since futurologists will tend to retreat to the warranted in such debates, disavowing the hyperbolizations which really substantiate their distinctive claims, making these discussion exactly as relevant and decisive as technical debates among monks over angels cavorting on pinheads) and benefit far more than you might expect on the expertise of literary and cultural critics and ethnographers who are more familiar with the actual dynamisms playing out in futurological discourses and sub(cult)ures.

It is not a scientific but an altogether rhetorical production to try to create the efficacious impression that it is not the one who affirms the warranted in a qualified and contextual way who supports the scientific but instead the one who leaps from the warranted into the superlative who so supports it. To declare modesty assertive, and the refusal of wish-fulfillment a belief in magic requires something of a bravura rhetorical operation, reminding one not least of the dynamics of the Big Lie. Needless to say, it is the one who makes the extraordinary claim who is required to provide extraordinary evidence in support of it. But beyond this, it is not the one who indulges in the superlative rather than the warranted who gets to determine what claims actually are the extraordinary ones and what evidence is extraordinary enough to support them. It is not for Robot Cultists to tell me that their marginal and unqualified assertions are the ordinary ones and that the burden of proof for the support of qualified, contextualized, modest warranted assertibility falls on me because mine is the extraordinary position, that my skepticism of their magic is the magical thinking. Cultists ALWAYS seem to think their articles of faith are commonsensical and undeniable. This sort of facile abuse is hardly unprecedented.

Quite a few Robot Cultists are crowing (although some are doing so in an ironic way meant to cover all their bases in case the verdict changes) about how I "lost" the battle with my robocultic interlocutor last night. I cannot say I know exactly what "winning" or "losing" such an exchange would actually mean. Certainly nothing particularly unexpected happened for someone who has engaged in too many exchanges of this sort over the years to count them. The debate such as it was seemed to me interestingly representative, and worthy, as you see, of a closer reading. In such matters I suppose that winning and whining can become rather hard to distinguish sometimes.

Going Haywire

A haircut may be a claim, but it isn't an argument.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

The Sound of the Ocean

Speak scoffly, and marry a big schtick.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Beyond "Choice": Enough With the Serially Failed Post-Roe Shilly-Shallying

Women's health advocates must stop conceding a "yuck factor" to forced pregnancy zealots -- you can respect those for whom abortion is a difficult decision without demanding everybody go on and on and on about how personally devastating it absolutely obviously must be for every single women to have an abortion procedure. Imagine what would result from a comparable moralizing freighting of root canal procedures. Whither mouth health? Obviously there is no woman on earth who engages in "recreational abortions" (I'm reasonably up to speed on kinks on offer) but somebody needs to stand on the principle of the thing and shut these disgusting woman-hating child-hating "pro-life" death-cult shits up for good: Sure, it would be better if commonplace constitutionally protected healthcare were provided in, you know, hospitals, but if it's gotta be abortion malls, let it be abortion malls! Hell, I say bring on the goddamn abortion mall!

Also, women's healthcare advocates must start outing affluent and hypocritical abortion closetcases who deny healthcare access to poor and precarious people that are effortlessly available to themselves and for recourse to which they receive the instant forgiveness of God's Love when "God's Love" otherwise takes the form of horrifying public harassment, legally required medical misinformation, humiliating lecturing of intelligent women by misogynist yahoos, legally mandated vaginal probe assault, organized crime and murder on the part of anti-abortion activists celebrated as free speech, and so on.

Face it, almost every single asshole who says abortion is murder is lying through their teeth on the subject. Yes, lying. Not to put too fine a point on the thing, all too many "pro-lifers" are also advocates of the "pro-life" execution of criminals (including, inevitably, at least some who are innocent), and coo over "pro-life" death dealing private military-grade weapons arsenals, and froth at the prospects of "pro-life" wars on brown civilians over there by armies filled with brown cannon fodder from over here, and declare that the undeserving poor should starve and freeze to death in a "pro life" sort of way and keep your gu'ment hands off my Medicare! But quite apart from these arrant absurdities it is truly rare for an abortion-is-murder forced-pregnancy zealot to really declare they think a daughter, colleague, neighbor securing a conventional early term abortion of a fetal-gumwad should truly be executed for doing so, even if they believe in capital punishment for murder otherwise. This is because it is pretty much only timid respectful pro-choice activists who take these belligerent blowhards at their word, when the truth is that they are all just patriarchal dickcheeses venting their hostility over the fact that there are independent women in the world who are not under their thumbs and that some people have sex lives that are not about self-loathing and subordination.

You know, I'm a big queer who has never been particularly thrilled with an lgbtq politics reduced to fighting for gay marriage (a vestige of human trafficking partaking in bogus bourgeois fantasies of romantic completion in coupling, on all of which I call bullshit even after thirteen rewarding years in a happy romantic relationship with Eric) and gay adoption of awful squalling infants, or the right to kill brown civilians who happen to stand in the way of natural resources our corporations want to exploit profitably as an openly gay gun-slinger -- AND YET, one really has to concede that the lgbtq refusal to accept the straight insistence on queer ickyness and the lgbtq outing of elite hypocritical closetcases yielded pretty much the only successes of note in a long generation of civil rights stasis and backpedaling in this country.

We must not return to the pointless suffering, death, and dread of the pre-Roe utopia of the forced-pregnancy zealots. We must stop playing nicey nice with these ignorant evil lying fucks. We must learn something from the successes of lgbtq politics. I will add, that a true queer politics actually already demands the ramification of prosthetically/multiculturally articulated lifeways anyway, very much including wanted contraception, abortion, ARTs, bodily re-making -- for loveways and for lifeways against sexism, against heterosexism, against cissexism, against racist wars on drugs, against censorship of creative and critical expressivity, against exploitation, against extraction, against war. If consumer capitalism has taught us anything, it is that "choice" is an evacuated husk when it is Freedom that is at stake. 

Robot Cultist Giulio Prisco Has Belated Transcendence Sadz... from The Future!

We haven't heard from terminally idiotic Robot Cultist Guilio Prisco for a while, but he sends his warm regards in a "timely" review of the must-miss feel-bored film of the summer, the feeble flop Transcendence.

For Prisco, Transcendence is substantially transhumanoid singularitarian agitprop capable of "persuad[ing]" some lucky moviegoers that "mind uploading and superAI are not only possible, but desirable and perhaps inevitable." Prisco expresses surprise at the film's many negative reviews and declares it "solid, thoughtful, and entertaining, much better than the average science-fiction film," no doubt because he believes palpably batshit crazy things such as that "mind uploading and superAI are not only possible, but desirable and perhaps inevitable."

I cannot express surprise at Prisco's expression of surprise, which can be best explained by pointing out that in a world that agreed with Prisco that the film was solid, thoughtful, and entertaining, Prisco would be regarded as solid, thoughtful, and entertaining as well. In this world, the real world, however, Prisco is merely entertaining, and not in a good way. I especially enjoyed his insistence that were Transcendence expanded into a dozen episodes it would become, unaccountably, good instead of bad. No doubt True Believing Randroidal Objectivists keep thinking much the same thing as each execrable installment of Atlas Shrugged is deposited for its worldchanging run in theaters.

Of the negative reviews that have disappointed Prisco, it seems that I myself have provided the one he regards as "really stupid." Turnabout is fair play, so fair enough, I say. After all, in my piece io9 Has the Transcendence Sadz I pretty much declared the movie really stupid and, by implication, Prisco really stupid in advance for liking it. "[T]his is an epic story of ideas," Prisco wails at one especially piquant point in his review, proving it.

Prisco goes on to describe my critique as part of a "currently fashionable fake-liberal PC War on Imagination." Newcomers to the blog unaware of Giulio Prisco may find all this quite odd (scroll down to his entry in The Superlative Summary for hours of reading pleasure). After all, laughable trumped up Faux News-esque crusades against a "War on Imagination" and charges of "PC"-ness are not exactly reliable signals of the True Liberalism, generally speaking. And I fear that even my friends are little likely to attribute "fashionableness" to me or to my views.

All of this is silliness of course, Prisco is not a serious person. But his views in their bald credulity provide an illuminating window onto Robot Cult futurology (which is also mostly silliness, but provides in turn an illuminating window onto more prevailing futurological discourses playing out in the deceptive, hyperbolic advertizing norms and forms of technofetishistic consumer culture as well as in the eugenic/technocratic rationales for global corporate-militarist incumbent elite exploitation and rule offered by neoliberal/neoconservative think tanks, for all of which the techno-transcendental assumptions and aspirations of the Robot Cult are a clarifyingly bonkers extremity and, usually, execrescence).

Given this, I will say quickly what I have said at excruciating length elsewhere: First, people who talk about "superintelligence" should be able to talk about intelligence first, and though no one can do so adequately yet, we can be sure that those who speak about intelligence in ways that denigrate or disavow the facts that intelligence as it actually exists in the world so far has always been incarnated in bodies and in social practices are almost certainly on a catastrophically wrong track (which helps account for the reason that AI dead-enders who often talk just this way are serial failures who never seem less confident in their expectations despite always being only wrong about everything). Second, you are not a picture of you, even if the picture is a really good picture or a "scan" of you; further, computers and software and networks tend to be crufty, brittle, bloated, and shorter-lived than the people who use them, and so it is hard to see why even a picture of you that could be you (though it cannot) would be "immortalized" by being "migrated" "transferred" "translated" or "uploaded" (all of which, by the way, are metaphors rather than scientific theories) onto realizable, rather than idealized, computers, software, or networks. If calling bullshit on conceptually incoherent pseudo-scientific poppycock is "PC," let me add that my PC crusade includes criticisms of homeopathy, antivax and chemtrail conspiracists, and anthropogenic climate change denialism. I also feel fairly confident that one can distinguish science from pseudo-science, science practice and policy from science fiction, and consensus science from for-profit paid-expert spin-doctoring (from fundamentalist zealots peddling bogus "creation science" to corporate criminals peddling "safe cigarettes") and still have a wonderful and fruitful imagination, nefarious anti-imagination warriors of the world notwithstanding.

"Public Happiness"

I sometimes tell my students that one indispensable quality of Hannah Arendt's political thinking is that while philosophers have tended to talk about politics as though it was marriage, Arendt talks about politics as though it was sex.

In so much of Arendt's writing, freedom is not a matter of moralizing mortals making contracts, it is a matter of enriching experiences of self-expressivity and self-creation which only the education, agitation, organization, campaigning, legislating of politics afford. A conspicuous -- but not the only -- place in which Arendt engages in this sort of richly erotic phenomenology of lived political freedom is her description of the "public happiness" of the anti-colonial American Founders and of the French Resistance to Nazi occupation in World War II  (and which she lamentably failed to grasp in the anti-colonial struggles delineated by Fanon).

For students trained to be subcultural signalers through conspicuous consumption and occasionally alienated voting, the indispensability and even the rudimentary sense of the reality of human experiences like public happiness can be hard to illustrate. I talk about the electricity of marches and rallies, I talk about movies like Norma Rae and Erin Brockovich in which private heroines attest to the unexpected life-changing pleasure of becoming visible and being taken seriously by colleagues in public, I talk about the fraught dynamics of the classroom in which efforts and resistances to new ideas play out, and so on.

It is always a pleasant surprise to stumble upon new testaments to public happiness, and see how surprised such testaments always seem to be about stumbling onto this public happiness, even in otherwise very politically aware people. From a Salon interview published today with Zephyr Teachout:
So you’re out on the campaign trail talking to people about all of this …
And I love it.
Did you know you’d love it?
You know, politics is way undersold. It’s so much fun. Our crowds are growing. First we were going to other people’s events, now we’re holding our own. People come with these questions about how their lives can be better, their families could be better, their businesses, how the state could be better. The job of politics is to take them from that question to action. And it’s very moving.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Rachel Haywire: Look At Me! Look At Me! Even If There's Nothing To See!

Alex Knapp directed my attention to this piece in which "Extreme Futurist" Rachel Haywire bids farewell to the so-called neoreactionary movement with which she has been lately identified.

Rachel Haywire's rather spastic bids for attention -- of which that piece is painfully one -- once got her fired for publishing one of my own more popular anti-transhumanoid rants in the transhumanoid propaganda vehicle humanity+ (for folks who aren't all humanity-minus like you and me), and so I do follow her shenanigans in a desultory fashion. In her latest missive, Haywire explains how she was once a sooper-radical leftist kinda sorta Robot Cultist but, like, Occupy is for Silicon Valley sell-outs (presumably Haywire has decided Justine Tunney is more representative of Occupy than Alexis Goldstein or something), and then she was a sooper-reactionary right-wing Robot Cultist but, like, they were all racist and sexist and stuff (racist and sexist reactionaries, the hell you say!) but no, like, you don't understand, they were like being racist and sexist and stuff at HER, so she had to "break up" with them.

That choice of phrase is all the more plangent when we realize that Haywire's stirring intellectual (or whatever) saga also included a break up with also now-neoreactionary Robot Cultist Michael Anissimov --allegedly! Oh, the post-humanity! Anissimov, once a regular and voluble critic of my anti-futurological critique here, was a brainwashed bottle-washer for various Robot Cult outfits from his early adolescence who, when he found himself stranded without legible accomplishments or credentials in that robocultic cul-de-sac, and in a future that didn't seem to be panning out particularly in the techno-transcendental department, decided to make a bid for muckety-muck status in his own sooper-reactionary auxiliary sub-basement sub-annex of the already, let's face it, auxiliary sub-basement sub-annex of the Singularitarian sub-sect of the transhumanoid Robot Cult archipelago. There's probably still quite a lot of attention and even cash to be had in the online futurological pseudo-science pseudo-philosophy pseudo-policy mega-church scam, after all, gross infantile spectacle and serial predictive failures aside. Like late-nite herbal boner pill infomercial circus barkers Robot Cultists are selling big dreams not, you know, reliable results or anything!

Anyway, Haywire has found herself in the aftermath of her futurological explorations of anarchotechtonic extremities clicking her ruby red slippers together and returning to her homely "punk rock girl" roots. That "punk rock girl" is a fairly densely multivalent conceptual site with its own real left, phony left, racist right, trustafarian ramifications leads to me wonder if she ever really went anywhere or if she ever has been anywhere particularly -- especially given the fact that Haywire never provides much in the way of a sense of the actual beliefs she had along her ideological travels or any arguments offered up to her or by her at any point in the itinerary.

I mention all this not least because Rachel Haywire has been given a spotlight from time to time, from various robotcultic eminences grises, to indicate the youthful vitality or radical energies still presumably invigorating futurological sub(cult)ures since the passing of the glory days of 90s dot.bomb long boom virtual reality cyberspace home of mind no death! no taxes! cypherpunk manifesto manifold irrational exuberance in which Extropians and Singularitarians were the most irrational exuberants frothing the fraudulent libertechian cauldron. The vapid narcissistic nonsense of Haywire's actually resulting travelogue isn't exactly a surprise, but it is another data point for dead-enders who need one, I guess.

But Not the Last

ThinkProgress:
[T]he capital of Choiseul Province in the Solomon Islands -- is planning to relocate its entire population in response to climate change, Reuters reports. It’s the first time that a provincial capital in the Pacific Islands will have done so.

Advertizing --> Think Tank --> Robot Cult

Futurology is what happens to thinking when marketing happens to commonsense.

More Futurological Brickbats here.