amor mundi

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

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Oh, It's Up Already

Here's a link. The Vulcan reference survived the final edit. I'll call that a victory.

Give a Squat

Before you romanticize squatting and other forms of informal insecure settlement you should realize that it often amounts to lethally dangerous crowdsourced real estate development for eventual plutocratic profit.

All Culture Is Prosthetic, All Prostheses Are Culture

Every tool and every technique is a text.

Room for Debate

I contributed a short piece to a discussion about the "mainstreaming of geek culture" for the New York Times' "Room for Debate" recurring feature. It will probably appear online later today or tomorrow morning. The piece is very short and was written on very short notice -- and despite both of these facts it was still edited to within an inch of its life, a process involving more steps than I could have expected. I'm still surprised to have been asked to contribute such a piece in the first place, and I will have more to say about both the process as well as about what the piece ended up saying and not saying in another post.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Richard Jones: No Uploads For You!

Anti-nanocornucopian Richard Jones offers up a fine technical debunking of techno-immortalizing "uploads" in his latest Soft Machines post, Your Mind Will Not Be Uploaded:
I start by asking whether or when it will be possible to map out... all the connections between [the brain's] 100 billion or so neurons. We’ll probably be able to achieve this mapping in the coming decades, but only for a dead and sectioned brain; the challenges for mapping out a living brain at sub-micron scales look very hard. Then we’ll ask some fundamental questions about what it means to simulate a brain. Simulating brains at the levels of neurons and synapses requires the input of phenomenological equations, whose parameters vary across the components of the brain and change with time, and are inaccessible to in-vivo experiment. Unlike artificial computers, there is no clean digital abstraction layer in the brain; given the biological history of nervous systems as evolved, rather than designed, systems, there’s no reason to expect one. The fundamental unit of biological information processing is the molecule, rather than any higher level structure like a neuron or a synapse; molecular level information processing evolved very early in the history of life. Living organisms sense their environment, they react to what they are sensing by changing the way they behave, and if they are able to, by changing the environment too. This kind of information processing, unsurprisingly, remains central to all organisms, humans included, and this means that a true simulation of the brain would need to be carried out at the molecular scale, rather than the cellular scale. The scale of the necessary simulation is out of reach of any currently foreseeable advance in computing power.
As I said, Jones is offering up a mostly "technical" debunking of the kind that enthusiasts for techno-transcendental conceits decry the lack of in my own critiques. But Jones is far from denying that these technical discussions are embedded in rhetorical frames, narratives, metaphorizations, conceptual problematics from which they derive much of their apparent intelligibility and force even if such discursive operations are not his focus.

You will notice, for example, that even in his brief summary above the notion of "simulating brains" is figuring prominently. About this he declares earlier on:
I want to consider two questions about mind uploading, from my perspective as a scientist. I’m going to use as an operational definition of “uploading a mind” the requirement that we can carry out a computer simulation of the activity of the brain in question that is indistinguishable in its outputs from the brain itself. For this, we would need to be able to determine the state of an individual’s brain to sufficient accuracy that it would be possible to run a simulation that accurately predicted the future behaviour of that individual and would convince an external observer that it faithfully captured the individual’s identity. I’m entirely aware that this operational definition already glosses over some deep conceptual questions, but it’s a good concrete starting point. My first question is whether it will be possible to upload the mind of anyone reading this now. My answer to this is no, with a high degree of probability, given what we know now about how the brain works, what we can do now technologically, and what technological advances are likely in our lifetimes. My second question is whether it will ever be possible to upload a mind, or whether there is some point of principle that will always make this impossible. I’m obviously much less certain about this, but I remain sceptical.
It's truly important that Jones insists such a discussion "glosses over some deep conceptual questions" but I wonder why this admission does not lead to a qualification of the predicate assertion, "it’s a good concrete starting point." To the extent that "uploading" is proffered by futurologists as a techno-immortalization scheme it isn't at all clear that even a successful "simulation" would satisfy the demands that invest their scheme. I flog the talking point that "you are not a picture of you" endlessly to make this point, but one might just as easily point out that nobody seriously entertains the substitution of one person by a longer-lived imposter as a viable life-extension method. And while I would agree that selfhood is substantiated in an ongoing way by observers, I think it is important to grasp that these observations have objective, but also subjective and inter-subjective dimensions none of which are adequate on their own and all of which supplement one another -- and also that these observations are not merely of "already existing" characteristics but of sociocultural scripts and norms through which selves are constructed/enacted in time. Uploading discussions tend to deploy radically impoverished understandings not only of selfhoods themselves but the terms of their substantiation. Again, Jones does not deny any of this, and he tends to be enthusiastically open to such considerations, but I wonder whether technical debunkings that circumvent such considerations at their point of departure don't end up smuggling in more of the reductionist nonsense he critiques as much as I do than he would like to do.

Another case in point, in Jones' truly welcome intervention into the work of metaphors in such discussions:
[T]o get anywhere in this discussion, we’re going to need to immunise ourselves against the way in which almost all popular discussion of neuroscience is carried out in metaphorical language. Metaphors used clearly and well are powerful aids to understanding, but when we take them too literally they can be badly misleading. It’s an interesting historical reflection that when computers were new and unfamiliar, the metaphorical traffic led from biological brains to electronic computers. Since computers were popularly described as “electronic brains”, it’s not surprising that biological metaphors like “memory” were quickly naturalised in the way computers were described. But now the metaphors go the other way, and we think about the brain as if it were a computer (I think the brain is a computer, by the way, but it’s a computer that’s so different to man-made ones, so plastic and mutable, so much immersed in and responsive to its environment, that comparisons with the computers we know about are bound to be misleading). So if what we are discussing is how easy or possible it will be to emulate the brain with a man-made computer, the fact that we are so accustomed to metaphorical descriptions of brains in terms of man-made computers will naturally bias us to positive answers.
This is music to my ears, but I have to wonder if these considerations really go far enough. (I'm a rhetorician for whom figurative language is the end-all be-all, so a working scientist like Jones might fairly question whether I would ever be satisfied on this score.) A scholar like Katherine Hayles has done extensive historical research into the ways in which the metaphors Jones is talking about here actually formed information science and computer science disciplines from their beginnings, so creating the conceptual terrain on which computers would seem plausibly describable later as "electronic brains" in the first place, an abiding conceptual terrain eventuating later still in the more recent reductions of discursive and cultural dynamics to "memes" and "viralities" -- or critical interventions into them nonetheless as efforts at a kind of "immunization," for example. Jones' talk about how we have been trained to treat glib biological and informational identifications as neutrally descriptive reaches deeper even than he reveals: how else do we account for the paradoxical proposal of his parenthesis that the brain is properly identified as a computer, while at once the brain is disanalogous with any actual computer? These associations are, as Jones says, so deeply ingrained as to be "naturalized." For me, it is enormously interesting that minds have so often been metaphorized as prostheses -- before its figuration as computer the mind has been mirror, blank slate, distributed steam pipes -- and that new figures do not displace old ones even when they are at odds. Freud's steampunk mind of repressions, displacements, projections, outlets lives on in the discourse of many who have made the digital turn to the computational mind. Who knows how or why exactly?

I find nicely provocative Jones speculative proposal that "the origin of van der Waals forces, as a fluctuation force, in the quantum fluctuations of the vacuum electromagnetic field... could be connected to some fundamental unpredictability of the decisions made by a human mind" and I am pleased that he takes care to distinguish such a proposal from theories like that of Roger Penrose that "the brain is a quantum computer, in the sense that it exploits quantum coherence" (since, as he points out, it... [is] difficult to understand how sufficient coherence could be maintained in the warm and wet environment of the cell"). For me, it is not necessary to save an ontic indeterminism traditionally ascribed to human minds through such expedients, since I was convinced well over twenty years ago by Rorty's argument in "Non-Reductive Physicalism" (from Objectivity, Relativism, and Truth, Cambridge: 1991, pp. 114-115) that one can be quite "prepared to say that every event can be described in micro-structural terms" while at once conceding that "[f]or most interesting examples of X and Y (e.g., minds and bodies, tables and particles) there are lots of true sentences about X's in which 'Y' cannot be substituted for 'X' while preserving truth... This is because any tool which has been used for some time is likely to continue to have a use...  a tool can be discarded... [but i]n such cases X-talk just fades away; not because someone has made a philosophical or scientific discovery that there are no X's... [nor] by 'linguistic analysis,' but, if at all, in everyday practice." I am cheerful about the prospect that the free will indispensable to my sense of selfhood may be a perspectival or discursive effect, but however poetically or scientifically potent its jettisoning might eventually become, dispensing with it would unquestionably be stupid and sociopathic for now rather than saying better the way the world is or speaking more in the language the universe prefers to be described in or any nonsense of the sort. 

I doubt that saying so would go very far toward convincing Jones -- any more than most transhumanists, for that matter -- that my own preferred philosophical and rhetorical arguments are more clarifying than their preferred technical skirmishing over the state-of-the-art and projected technodevelopmental timelines. But, again, I do worry that accepting enough figurative (rhetorical) and conceptual (philosophical) assumptions to have mutually intelligible "technical" discussions with techno-transcendentalists, especially when there really is no need to do so, simply concedes too much ground to them for resulting debunkery at its best to do much good -- they can always respond, after all, with minute nonthreatening qualifications or terminological shifts that leave you debating angels on pinheads at the level of detail interminably.

I am quite sure Jones is alive to this very worry, as he concludes with a practical consideration that looms large in my critiques of the futurologists as well:
[I]deas like mind uploading are not part of the scientific mainstream, but there is a danger that they can still end up distorting scientific priorities. Popular science books, TED talks and the like flirt around such ideas and give them currency... that influences -- and distorts -- the way resources are allocated between different scientific fields. Scientists doing computational neuroscience don’t themselves have to claim that their work will lead to mind uploading to benefit from an environment in which such claims are entertained by people like Ray Kurzweil, with a wide readership... I think computational neuroscience will lead to some fascinating new science, but you could certainly question the proportionality of the resource it will receive compared to, say, more experimental work to understand the causes of neurodegenerative diseases.
As I point out above, the effort critically to address techno-transcendental formulations on something like their own terms can smuggle prejudicial and reductive assumptions, frames, and metaphorizations into the discourse of even their critics in ways that circumscribe deliberation on these questions and so set the stage for the skewed public policy language and funding priorities and regulatory affordances that Jones points to here.

As a demonstration of how easily this can happen, notice that when Jones offhandedly declares that "[i]t’s unquestionably true, of course, that improvements in public health, typical lifestyles and medical techniques have led to year-on-year increases in life expectancy," the inevitable significance with which techno-transcendentalists freight such claims remains the furthest thing imaginable from an "unquestionable tru[th]" (Jones declares it "hollow" just a few sentences later) and yet the faith-based futurological frame itself remains in force even as he proceeds with his case: Needless to say (or it should be), improvements in prenatal care, childhood nutrition and disease treatment can yield year-on-year increases in life expectancy without year-on-year increases in life expectancy for people over the age of sixty-five, for example, and even if improvements in the treatment of heart disease and a few other chronic health conditions of older age yield some improvement for that cohort as well, this can and does remain compatible with absolute stasis of human longevity at its historical upper bound even if presently intractable neurodegenerative diseases are ameliorated, thus bedeviling altogether the happy talk of techno-immortalists pretending actuarial arrows on charts are rocketing irresistibly toward 150 year lifespans even in the absence of their handwaving about nanobotic repair swarms and angelic mindclone uploads. It is not an easy thing to address a critique to futurologists on terms they will not dismiss as hate speech or relativistic humanities mush and yet continue to speak sense at all. Richard Jones continues to make the effort to do so -- and succeeds far better than I do at that -- and for that I am full of admiration and gratitude, even if I devote my energies in response to his efforts to sounding warnings anyway.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Kitten Has Clause

I have a social contract with my cat. It is full of claws

Faith Based

There is no article of faith more fancifully supernatural than belief in a natural free market.

More Dispatches from Libertopia here.

Lost To Be Found

Contra privacy rights discourses, privacy-qua-privation is not only NOT threatened by algorithmic profiling but vastly expanded and imposed. The greatest danger of the surveilled/profiled algorithmically legible subject is that it threatens our public, not our private selves. What Arendt sought to describe and defend as "public happiness" is not available on the terms proffered the false publicity of the surveilled/profiled subject. But in my classrooms and in union meetings, in public demonstrations and assemblies, both the pining and the pleasure Arendt is talking about are still palpable. The phenomenological inhabitation of democracy and its openings onto experimental political practices -- what Arendt called "The Lost Treasure of the Revolutionary Tradition" -- is always lost, the better to be found, and re-founding, in each new generation.

For more, check out my Twitterized Privacy Treatise and under posts available under the "Surveillance" topic tag at The Superlative Summary.

I Me Me Mine

Every Apple product is a funhouse mirror, an iMe killing time.

More Fool Me Tee Vee here.

Think This Notion Has A Future?

Idea for sf movie, novel, game: tho' apparently undistinguished and from humble origins, straight white guy turns out to be The Chosen One!

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Blear of Death

I regularly hear from people the claim that the fear of death is universal. I honestly wonder if I am simply not understanding what people are trying to communicate when they say this? I mean, I do hope I am not in excruciating pain or completely isolated when I die -- but I am not thrilled at such prospects even when they are survivable, it's not death that is fearsome in them as far as I can tell. Sure, I want to live, it's the only game in town. But, I dunno, I really truly find a fear of death weird. And preoccupation with that fear seems to me especially terrible and deranging, even a kind of death in life. Perfectly nondescript unaccomplished persons manage to die all the time. Honestly, how hard or how odd can it be? I don't get it.

Baby Talk

Futurology in its techno-transcendental moods is infantile wish-fulfillment, in its existential risk moods infantile attention seeking.

More Futurological Brickbats here.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Today's Random Wilde

A community is infinitely more brutalized by the habitual employment of punishment, than it is by the occasional occurrence of crime.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Booting the Boots

Weird how important the figure "boots on the ground" has become, especially given its ambiguous relation to literal boots on the ground.

Tuesday, September 09, 2014

Comedy Routines Compensate Routine Tragedies

Or so I find.

Robot Cultist Martine Rothblatt Is In the News

If you scroll down to the name "Martine Rothblatt" in the Superlative Summary (an archive of anti-futurological critiques and also rants of mine) you will find The "Imagination" of a Robot Cultist, More Serious Futurology from Martine Rothblatt, and Martine Rothblatt's Artificial Imbecillence, or if you scroll to the topic "Avatar Techno-Immortalism" and you will find a piece critique of one of Rothblatt's pet projects What's Wrong With Terasem?

Not to put too fine a point on it, I think it actually matters that we don't know enough about brains to understand let alone replicate let alone "exceed" human consciousness, and that confident proposals based on such mastery, especially proposals that tap into irrational passions for superintelligence and immortality (or, more to the point, irrational fears of vulnerabilities to error and misunderstanding or irrational fears of aging and death), are profoundly irresponsible, deceptive even if also self-deceived, and when propounded in the tonalities of promises of salvation for the faithful, at once pseudo-scientific, even anti-scientific, amounting to flim-flam operations.

Of course, the world -- and especially the pop-tech press -- is full of hype and loose talk and promises of sooper-powers and looming apocalypse. Isn't all this rather harmless if it isn't taken too seriously? Rothblatt rather seems like fun for a dinner party.

At the risk of being a fuddy-duddy, the fact is that in a time of planetary environmental catastrophes and digital networked surveillance and marketing formations we happen to need quite desperately to be able to make recourse to warranted scientific consensus in the context of the most accountable possible democracy to help solve our shared problems and implement harm-reducing public policies and maintain renewable and equitable public infrastructural affordances. Pseudo-science whether in the form of climate change denialism, homeopathic evangelism, or futurological techno-transcendentalism erodes standards, suffuses public deliberation with skewed stakes, and distracts attention from real problems and real possibilities.

Quite apart from all that, I personally think that those who fear death in ways that lead them to fixate on nanobots spinning shiny robot bodies out of their frozen hamburgerized brains or to fixate instead on having their "info-souls" "scanned" or "uploaded" so as to live as cyberangels in Holodeck Heaven (more to Rothblatt's way of pining) can be tragically more dead in their dread and denial than they need be in life, and all to be quite as dead in death as everybody ends up being anyway. And while we have had nearly a century by now of cocksure computer enthusiasts declaring that their reductive disembodied often sociopathic conceptions of human intelligence are the springboard for the arrival of artificial intelligence any moment now, year after year after year, usually just Twenty Years in the Future! never diminished in their certainty despite the endless deferral of the dream, worse than the facile techno-cheerleading of it all for me is that despite their serial failures the impoverished understanding of intelligence that fuels their failed vision meets with success after success, as we call more and more dumb devices and programs "smart" that are not, all the while risking losing altogether the sense of the distinctiveness and demands of the actually incarnated intelligence of real live human beings in the world, losing our capacity to appreciate and empathize and support the decent, delicate, delicious collaborating consciousnesses of billions of living needful earthlings who share this world in this moment with us as real stakeholders: Fixated instead on our stupid smart cards, our stupid smart cars, our stupid smart homes, our stupid smart phones, a whole stupid smart crap avalanche tumbles toward the landfill take would take us all down with it.

All that said, I find it quite easy to agree with the main assertion of a rather breathless profile of Rothblatt in Jezebel today: "One of the world's most fascinating humans is easily Martine Rothblatt, America's highest-paid female CEO. A futurist and trans woman who cofounded both Sirius Satellite Radio and a biotech company, she's got a robot replica of her wife and believes that soon, tech will allow our consciousnesses to live forever." Fascinating? Unquestionably. The Jezebel profile refers to another higher-profile profile of Rothblatt published in New York magazine last weekend. Jezebel describes that piece as "exhaustive" but I failed to see mention in that piece (nor in the Jezebel piece) of Rothblatt's "solution" for "achieving lasting peace in the Middle East," namely, that Israel and Palestine both be admitted as States in the United States of America. Because if anything is obvious to everybody it is that the United States has not been involved enough in Israeli politics? Rothblatt wrote a whole book about it. That proposal is also "fascinating" to say the least, but perhaps there are too many other words that come to mind to describe it for it to find its way to a mention in a sympathetic fluff piece on the occasion of the flogging yet another new book, this one saying nothing new to those who have been following the techno-immortalist sects of the transhumanist and singularitarian Robot Cult with any kind of attention.

Anyway, I can't say that I am saying anything new either in responding to Rothblatt's latest star turn. The truth is that I was inspired to write this mostly because of the comments on the Jezebel piece. These seemed to me to be quite encouraging, which in itself really did feel like something new to me. The first thing I was pleased to see is that so many of the commenters were vigilant and fierce in policing any dumb transphobia on exhibition in these pieces or occasioned by them. There has been more and more of that in online precincts especially, and as a queer geek and queer theoryhead of many years it just makes me happy to find so much ferocious intelligence and impatience with cissexist and transphobic discourse in the world. But the second thing I was pleased to see is that even in geeky online fora lots of people are having no truck with transhumanoid and immortalist futurological formulations -- many more people seem to recognize that techno-transcendentalisms are pseudo-scientific varieties of evangelical flim-flam or corporate-militarist apologiae and hype. Back in the days when the libertechbrotarians ruled over so much of the cyberspatial sprawl it seemed any corporate press release hyperventilating a modest qualified app or lab result into a Royal Road to techno-utopian godhood was greeted with blissed out consumer fandoms and saucer-eyed True Believers who would cast out the least skepticism like a band of rabid Ayn Rand protagonists slashing at moochers with their blade-sharp sculpted cheekbones. Those days, it seems, at least for now, are over.

Monday, September 08, 2014

I Haven't Kept Up With the Fool Me Tee Vee Wisecracks

Watching Chris Matthews is like watching Mars Attacks! dubbed entirely into Martian.

More Fool Me Tee Vee here.

Is Reddit A "Failed State"?

I can agree that Reddit is run by something like "warlords," I suppose -- by which I mean merely to note that it is driven by the libertechbrotarian subculture that once suffused the entire web and remains a noisy noisome minority with delusions of prevalence and viability. But Reddit as an online networked formation is so far from statelikeness that to call it a "failed state" is to court a misconstrual nearly as radical as any contention its bullying bigots might hold that they are making a successful go at freedom. Culture isn't government, so there are category errors lurking in such glib formulations -- which is pretty commonplace when so-called "libertarians" are making noises. T.C. Sottek implies in a recent piece in The Verge that Reddit wants to think of itself as a government in some sense, but that would be an impossible thing for them to be and hence a stupid thing for them to want to be, quite apart from the fact that I don't see much evidence that they really want to be anyway. If Reddit facilitates crimes they will discover soon enough, like generations of cocksure libertechbrotarians before them, that cyberspatial boasts to the weary giants of flesh and steel that "You have no sovereignty where we gather," don't particularly cut the mustard. There are moments, to be sure, when Reddit seems to want to seem a principled and respectable enterprise, although hardly in any really consistent way. And there is no question that Reddit attracts reactionaries and is run by enough reactionaries that they are slow to grasp that any aspirations to sustainable mainstream profitability are threatened by the reactionaries. Reddit has attracted eyeballs longer than I expected it to, so I have no predictions to make about all that. I must say I have always personally found the place pretty gross and dumb for the most part, and Sottek's exposures confirm longstanding impressions.

T.C. Sottek, "Reddit is a failed state: The 'front page of the internet' is run by warlords":
Reddit wants to be a techno-libertarian's wet dream, but in practice its a weak feudal system that's actually run by a small group of angry warlords who use "free speech" as a weapon. Reddit is mostly a nice place filled with nice people who run nice little communities, but there's virtually nothing keeping them safe from bullies like "John," a 33-year-old man who brazenly dispersed stolen private photos and then cried foul when The Washington Post published information about him. Reddit's government is more interested in protecting John than the women he harassed. [CEO Yishan] Wong wrote that "the role and responsibility of a government differs from that of a private corporation, in that it exercises restraint in the usage of its powers." Forgiving for a moment the fact that this statement is completely wrong, Reddit's justification for this special type of behavior is incoherent since it does exercise its powers to censor content and protect people, unless they are victims... Last time the company found itself here it was dealing with negative press over a couple of seedy communities that were distributing "creepshots:" sexualized photos taken of women, often in awkward or compromising positions, without their knowledge. Reddit allowed this to go on for some time, but only brought out the big guns when Gawker revealed the creepshot ring leader was a 49-year-old man named Michael Brutsch, because Reddit believes in free speech as long as it protects the unsavory men who keep exploitative content flowing. Even charities won't accept money from these men, but Reddit will. According to a report from Recode, Reddit's free speech zone, where men run wild over women's privacy and dignity, may be worth somewhere in the neighborhood of $500 million. If Reddit wants to be thought of as a government, we'll call it what it is: a failed state, unable to control what happens within its borders. At minimum, Reddit is a kleptocracy that speaks to lofty virtues while profiting from vice.

The Yes That Is The No

Behind the eyes of every positive person cold opportunism, every confident boast shrieking panic, every insistent optimist cruelest dark.

Meet the Penis

Re-"tooled," still white.

By the way, the original host of NBC's Meet the Press was Martha Roundtree, who developed the show for radio and then moderated the televised version in its first years.

 

Saturday, September 06, 2014

Natasha Lomas on the Shift from Social to Sociopathic Software

The lesson I personally draw from the Natasha Lomas piece in yesterday's TechCrunch is that when online social networks like facebook and twitter emerge into the rare sort of prevalence that makes them actually look reliably profitable (or that awful gawky artless term of art, monetizable) as few such efforts ever manage to be and even fewer for long, these social networks can then mature in roughly two ways (the second of which few seriously entertain yet, but I insist must): Either they will be transformed into sociopathic networks driven by for-profit algorithms that betray and usually alienate their initial user-base, or they could be nationalized instead as public goods driven by the people who will continue to use them in unpredictable and unreliable and often unprofitable ways.

Follow the link for the whole piece, There's Something Rotten in the State of Social Media, my excerpts follow:
Facebook forcing users to download a separate messaging app if they want to carry on IMing their friends. Twitter polluting its users’ carefully curated timelines with content they did not choose to read. Facebook manipulating the emotional cadence of content to figure out whether it can actively impact users’ emotions. Twitter flirting with the idea of adding even more algorithmically selected content into the timeline -- content that prioritizes what’s already popular, and thus mainstream, at the expense of non-mainstream interests, nuance and minority views. Meanwhile, studies suggest the majority of Facebook users are unaware that what they see in their newsfeed is not actually the sum total of their friends’ news, but rather an algorithmic skim -- biased for clickbait, stickiness and, of course, advertising... The overarching theme [is]... increasing external pressure to monetize these social services... Bottom line: who I choose not to follow is [a] core a part of why Twitter is so useful to me... Also... human time and attention span are finite, so any digital service that steers you away from the things you are actively interested in for its own profit-making ends is acting parasitically.... [A]nother theme here: increasing automation, and thus decreasing human (end-user) control. Automation... lowers costs over the long term because it’s autonomous... automation is linked intrinsically to monetization. Automation can also be granularly controlled via algorithmic levers... A business can clinically figure out how to maximize factors such as user engagement or ad views just by running a couple of new algorithmic recipes and comparing the results -- selecting whichever one maximizes its bottom line... they just optimize core algorithms for particular business outcomes: page views, stickiness, user engagement, and so on. And for the overarching business imperative: profit... But it’s not without cost... Slowly but surely the freedoms that initially drew us into these glittering social spaces are being withdrawn, as barred gates drop into place -- limiting our usage options, and controlling and constraining the social content we see. The walled gardens shrink, getting narrower in outlook as the logic of their underlying content-filtering algorithms becomes evident. The business advantage of limiting what users can do is that user behavior can be better channeled and predicted... Many people won’t even realize exactly how staged and contrived their digital social services have become, as they are encouraged to keep scrolling mindlessly through all the tasty looking, populist clickbait fired at their eyeballs. Yet the original promise of a free social space is reduced to...  a pace-optimizing profit-maximizing machine... Automation is also a type of enforcement. It has to be. It implies a lack of choice stemming from the lack of a human hand steering things. Control is taken away from humans and handed over to what are (for now) human written algorithms... Facebook and Twitter are indeed free at the point of use. And the hackneyed tech maxim runs that ‘if it’s free you’re the product’. And yes it follows that if you’re the product then you’re not an agent involved in the service but a unit opted in to being manipulated by the service. The service views you as a controllable commodity... in order to achieve its goal of greater profits. But there is a problem with that logic. Thing is, without us human users of these social services there would be no Facebook and no Twitter. Without millions and even billions of people freely producing and uploading content there would be no social media palaces at all... It can be difficult to decry social media’s inexorable shift towards algorithmically curated info-feeds on the grounds that these businesses need to drive usage to please their investors. After all that is how publicly traded companies operate... Twitter, as it (mostly) is now with users in the driving seat, is a service with a human soul. While Facebook, which long ago prioritized algorithmic logic over human choices, is just another mechanized process.

Graduate Seminar on the Anti-Politics of Design

Here are the first few weeks of the syllabus for my graduate seminar at the San Francisco Art Institute, Designs On Us. The course began as an idea for a book that never went anywhere -- for whatever reason, I think elaborating arguments through course trajectories suits me more than doing so in longform books. Anyway, the syllabus goes on from here, but the textual assignments change quite a bit as the weeks go on, so there is no point posting the rest of it here and now. If you are interested, click the link to the course blog and you can read the assignments as they arrive. The assignments usually arrive at their final form no later than the Friday before the following session.  

CS-500H-01 Designs On Us: The Politics and Anti-Politics of Design

Course Blog: http://designsonus.blogspot.com/
Dale Carrico: dcarrico@sfai.edu; ndaleca@gmail.com

Attendance/Participation, 10%; Precis, 10%; Designer Presentation, 10%; 10+ Comments, 10%; Symposium Presentation, 10%; Final Paper, 50%

The proposal that is the point of departure for our course is that design discourse is a site where at once politics is done and politics is disavowed. Design as a site of "designation" invokes the gesture of naming as mastery, of reduction as revelation, of problems as provocations to instrumental technique and not stakeholder struggle, a mentalité with its own paradoxical temporality, publicity, linearity, cognition. Design as a site of the "designer label" is an indulgence in fetishism, of the commodity-form, of an auratic posture, of a psychic compensation of lack and its threat. To elaborate and pressure these propositions, we will spend quite a bit of time in the critique of three design discourses in particular: one, Green design which would accomplish sustainability without history; two, social/p2p software design which would accomplish democracy without participation; and three, eugenic design which would accomplish life-enhancement without lifeway diversity. In your individual presentations I hope we will ramify our attentions to other design sites: comparative constitutions, fashion design, food styling, graphic design, industrial design, interior design, landscape design, "life coaching," and who knows what else?

Week One | August 27 -- Introductions

Added, for those who mentioned during the opening lecture that they might like a little more background on the fetishism of the Designer Label:

Marx on The Fetishism of Commodities and the Secret Thereof from Capital
Walter Benjamin, Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproducibility
Naomi Klein, Taking On the Brand Bullies from No Logo

Week Two | September 3 -- Biomimicry, Cradle to Cradle, Natural Capitalism

Martin Heidegger, The Question Concerning Technology
Dale Allen Pfeiffer, Eating Fossil Fuels
Janine Benyus, Echoing Nature
Biomimicry Institute, Velcro
William McDonough & Michael Braungart The NEXT Industrial Revolution
Cradle to Cradle -- Principles
Amory Lovins, Hunter Lovins, Paul Hawken, A Roadmap for Natural Capitalism
OpenPolitics Critiques of Paul Hawken and Natural Capitalism

Week Three | September 10 -- Permaculture and Viridian Design

Bruce Sterling, When Blobjects Rule the Earth
Bruce Sterling, Manifesto of January 3, 2000
Viridian Design Principles
Bruce Sterling, Last Viridian Note
Wes Jackson and Wendell Berry, A 50-Year Farm Bill
The Land Institute: (a) Issues (b) Solutions (c) Science
Navdanya: About Us
GEN: Global Eco-Village Network: Definitions
Permaculture Design Principles, Online Interactive Presentation

Friday, September 05, 2014

Pseudonymous Futurology

Futurology as pseudo-science: Confusing science fiction with science practice, confusing faith-based initiatives with consensus science.

Futurology as pseudo-politics: Confusing consumer fandoms with stakeholder constituencies, confusing technocratic incumbency with democratic contestation.

Futurology as pseudo-philosophy: Confusing PR with analysis, confusing making bets with having thoughts.

Too Bored

...to blog.

Thursday, September 04, 2014

Wednesday, September 03, 2014

Decisions, Decisions

I suppose one way to show you value journalists would be to try use their occasional murder as a pretext for indiscriminate slaughter. Another option might be, you know, reading and supporting  their actual work.

Tuesday, September 02, 2014

Today's Random Wilde

I don't believe in progress: but I do believe in the stagnation of human perversity.

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.