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

Thursday, December 31, 2015

Year's Last Tweet

As usual:

ABBA New Year To You All!

It's yet another cherished Amor Mundi holiday tradition...

Resolved

In 2016 I will strive to be less symmetrical.

Futurology Is Advertising Pretending To Be Thought

The Future Is The Same As It Ever Was for 2016

Frogdesign has coughed up its first hairball of Tech Trends 2016. Given the Unbearable Stasis of Accelerating Change you will be unsurprised that our suave professional futurists predict 2016 will be the year of Big VR (again), Big AI (again), personalized medicine (again), crypto transcendence of nation state politics (again) .... What, no low earth orbit love hotels or cell-cultured celebrity burgers this year? Fear not, that bleeding edge future can still be regurgitated again for 2017! And you better believe that multi-century longevity meds, history-ending superintelligent AI, sexy sexbots, profitable geo-engineering eco-miracles, and another chapter of white imperialism mining Mars and the asteroids via space elevator all remain, as ever, Just! Twenty! Years! Away! In! The! Future! Exciting times, especially if you're into bank fraud.

I Predict!


I predict that in 2016 futurists will continue to be predictable.

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

A Marvelous Guest Post

Upgraded from a comment in the Moot by my friend Jim Fehlinger:
A friend of mine, off from work between the holidays and with the rest of his family out of the house for the duration, invited me over this past weekend to binge-watch movies on his big HDTV. We started with the recent SyFy Childhood's End and ultimately graduated to... three of his favorite Marvel superhero movie adaptations -- the first installment each of Thor, Captain America, and The Avengers.

I hadn't seen any of these before -- I don't keep up with comic-book movie adaptations. I enjoyed them well enough, and my friend is a more-or-less sophisticated consumer of these things (he's pushing 60; he's no 12-year-old). But in the context of my past almost-20-years' exposure to the on-line transhumanists, I now find this sort of entertainment disturbing on several levels. The feeding of adolescent-male narcissistic power fantasies (however perfumed with ostensible "altruistic" motivations in the diegesis -- the interior story line), the militarism, and the atmosphere of American exceptionalism are certainly bothersome, but what I find most irritating these days is my certain knowledge that some people, of whatever age (physical or mental), absorb these fantasies as though they constituted a real paradigm for "the future". All these thoughts were hovering in the back of my mind even as I was still appreciating the movies at a 12-year-old's level. Afterwards, I mentioned these reservations to my friend, and he acknowledged them rather perfunctorily, but I'm afraid he doesn't "bellyfeel" them as much as I do at this stage of my life. ;->
I must say, I am mostly uninterested but mildly disturbed by these Marvel blockbusters myself as well. I mean, I loved the high-camp cocoliciousness of Flash Gordon and still quite earnestly enjoy re-watching the first big Superman movie with Christopher Reeve. I mildly enjoyed the Burton Batmans and the first couple of X-Men movies, but since Wolvereen is for me the least interesting imaginable focus of a narrative I can't say that they have held my attention through the endless sequels. Many of the more acclaimed recent super-hero adaptations have struck me as just dull and dumb (the Spiderman flicks through to the various Leagues of superheros banging into things in their underwear movies) or, as you say, politically pernicious (the Tony Stark and gritty Batman re-boots seem to me to be libertopian softcore porn for man-children). I don't say too much about this because I assume there may be generational cues I am missing out on that contribute to the pleasures many otherwise smart, clued-in people seem to attest to in all the fandom generated by these things. But I must say, I find most superhero movie franchises these days quite disturbing in rather the same ways you seem to do. While it would be hilariously idiotic to treat these pyrotechnical displays as futurologically predictive in any literal sense, I do suppose in all that spectacularly devastated infrastructure there is in these films an allegorical return of the repressed reality of anthropogenic climate catastrophe and a pleasurably cathartic payoff to compensate all the learned helplessness and consumer complacency of moviegoers complicit in this still ameliorable disaster. Anyway, it would be interesting to see if other readers have different takes. For added pleasure, I'll also append this, because the word "marvelous" always pushes a particular button for me:

My Usual Tweeting Against SF As Prediction and PR

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Rapprochement

I do not think an anarchist society is possible, but neither may be a free society without critics who will be dismissed as anarchists.

Monday, December 28, 2015

Not Redeemed

Severus Snape was just another racist geek who seemed to think his creepy, awkward inhabitation of patriarchal masculinity in high school was a get out of being called on bigotry free card.

My God, It's Full of Aarghs

I just submitted course proposals for AY 2016/17, a process which had all the warmth of a conversation outside the pod bay door with HAL 9000.

About That Re-Make Re-Boot

I'd been wondering how long it would take capitalism to reframe whistleblowers and consumer reviews as "spoilers."

And Scarcely Stealthed

"Tech" is a euphemism for theft.

Bark! Bark!

Arguments are especially unnerving when they take para-dogsicle forms.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Maker? Taker? Faker?

To think of yourself as a "Maker" or part of a "Maker Culture" you must first accept the deeply ugly falsehood that anybody else at all is not.

Saturday, December 26, 2015

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Pitch

Baby it's cold outside but where I kill everybody.

But Who Would Pay?

Wonder who would pay to support a fair and free society?
Exactly the same people who now pay for our unfair, underfree society:
All of us.

Christmas Effects by Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick

As every year on this day, a remembrance for a scholar who mattered to me when it mattered quite a lot:

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

The thing hasn’t, finally, so much to do with propaganda for Christianity as with propaganda for Christmas itself. They all -- religion, state, capital, ideology, domesticity, the discourses of power and legitimacy -- line up with each other so neatly once a year, and the monolith so created is a thing one can come to view with unhappy eyes. What if instead there were a practice of valuing the ways in which meanings and institutions can be at loose ends with each other? What if the richest junctures weren’t the ones where everything means the same thing? -- Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Tendencies, Duke University Press, 1993, pp. 5-6

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Divided Government After the Great Sort

Expanded and upgraded from the Moot:

Most representative constitutional governments established in the aftermath of our own experiment in the United States have eschewed those idiosyncrasies of our system owing to the Founders' facile anti-partisan fetish and implemented parliamentary systems instead -- and very much to their benefit for the most part.

Basic administrative functions (like raising the debt ceiling, filling key posts in a timely way) should be professionalized. The Senate Leader and House Speaker should be of the party of the Executive, and (if necessary, multiparty, multifaction) coalitions should form to support the implementation of the policy platform in the service of which the Executive are elected, else the government has no confidence. Of course, here in the United States, none of this is likely ever to be.

Given our present thoroughly institutionalized party duopoly, it is unclear that the organized and by now thoroughly anti-democratic force of the GOP can be sufficiently marginalized even in a conspicuously diversifying, secularizing, planetizing polyculture to be circumvented in a sufficiently timely and sustained way for majorities seeking to address urgent and obvious common problems -- socioeconomic precarity, climate and pandemic catastrophe, global conflicts exacerbated by global trafficking in military weapons, any one of which threaten the struggle for civilization (which I define as sustainable equity-in-diversity) and in combination threaten still worse.

"Divided Government" is dysfunctional, depressive of participation, and confuses the necessary of assignment of responsibility for policy outcomes. It seems to me that the various Golden Ages of bipartisan co-operation celebrated by Village pundits were mostly periods in which the great evil of the slave-holding and then segregated South were marginalized through their distribution into and management by both parties -- a strategy that never worked well (and could prevent neither a Civil War to resolve the question of slavery nor the betrayal of Reconstruction in the establishment of Jim Crow) and has worked ever less well during the generational "Great Sort" of the Parties in respect to white supremacy from the New Deal coalition through the Civil Rights era to the Southern Strategy and the descent into the Summers of Tea and the Winter of Trump.

It seems to me that the Founders' celebration of a hyper-individualist conception of "public happiness" informed by the specificity of their experience of Revolutionary politics undermined their appreciation of forms of other more democratic dimensions of public happiness connected to assembly, administration, organization, loyalty. (The guardian angel of this blog, Hannah Arendt, the phenomenologist of political power, elaborated the Founders' experience better than anyone, and perhaps shares some of their blind spots.) Their abstract commitments were implemented in Constitutional doctrines that have articulated progressive historical struggles in the United States. The Founders were wrong and we're stuck with their mistake.

And we ARE stuck with it: much like quixotic third-party fantasies, in which the politics to create a viable third party to solve certain very real pathologies of our duopoly are harder to achieve than to solve those problems through and in spite of the duopoly, so too the politics to create a parliamentary system to solve certain very real pathologies of the anti-factionalist quirks of our Constitution are harder to achieve than to solve those problems through and in spite of the quirks of our anti-factionalist Constitution.

More Artificial Imbecillence

In both student papers and in online comments I'm finding meaning muddled ever more due to reliance on autocorrect programs. Are you?

Sunday, December 20, 2015

More Than Customers

Part of what we teachers must provide are experiences of sociality and publicity in which students do not understand themselves as customers. Education should challenge what students have grown accustomed to, not least their sense that they themselves are never more than customers. That teachers resist being reduced to service-providers is an indispensable part of this work. This resistance can take many forms (and I admit I try to engage in all of these myself): explicit elaboration whenever possible in lectures and discussions, throwing wrenches in ongoing administrative efforts at quantification and standardization, defiance of grade-inflation and infotainment spectacles for students who demand "their money's worth," and so on. Schools must be places in which other forms of value than competitive utility and profitability are given play in the world, where provocation, improvisation, serendipity, mediation, strange desires help diverse communities build practical and imaginative convivialities together and so open up promising futures for us all.

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Robocultic Q & A With a Tech Journalist

Background:

Last month I spent a few weeks in correspondence with an interesting writer and occasional journalist who stumbled upon some transhumanist sub(cult)ures and wanted to publish an expose in a fairly high-profile tech publication. She is a congenial and informed and funny person, and I have no doubt she could easily write a piece about futurology quite as excoriating as the sort I do, but probably in a more accessible way than my own writing provides. I was rather hoping she would write something like that -- and I suspect she had drafts that managed the trick -- but the published result was a puff-piece, human interest narratives of a handful of zany robocultic personalities, that sort of thing, and ended up being a much more promotional than critical engagement, with a slight undercurrent of snark suggesting she wasn't falling for the moonshine without saying why exactly or why it might matter. I'm not linking to the piece or naming my interlocutor because, as I said, I still rather like her, and by now I can't say that I am particularly surprised at the rather lame product eventuating from our (and her other) conversations. She is a fine writer but I don't think there is much of an appetite for real political or cultural criticism of futurological discourse in pop-tech circles, at any rate when it doesn't take the form of making fun of nerdy nerds or indulging in disasterbatory hyperbole.

The transhumanists, singularitarians, techno-immortalists, digi-utopians, geo-engineers and other assorted futurological nuts I corral under the parodic designation "Robot Cultists" remain sufficiently dedicated to their far-out viewpoints that they do still continue to attract regular attention from journalists and the occasional academic looking for a bit of tech drama or tech kink to spout about. I actually think the robocultic sub(cult)ure is past its cultural heyday, but its dwindling number of stale, pale, male enthusiasts has been more than compensated lately by the inordinate amount of high-profile "tech" billionaires who now espouse aspects of the worldview in ways that seem to threaten to have Implications, or at least make money slosh around in ways it might not otherwise do.

Anyway, as somebody who has been critiquing and ridiculing these views in public places for over a quarter century I, too, attract more attention than I probably deserve from journalists and critics who stumble upon the futurological freakshow and feel like reacting to it. For the last decade or so I have had extended exchanges with two or three writers a year, on average, all of whom have decided to do some sort of piece or even a book about the transhumanists. For these futurologically-fascinated aficionados I inevitably provide reading lists, contacts, enormous amounts of historical context, ramifying mappings of intellectual and institutional affiliation, potted responses to the various futurological pathologies they happen to have glommed onto, more or less offering an unpaid seminar in reactionary futurist discourse.

Articles do eventually appear sometimes. In them I am sometimes a ghostly presence, offering up a bit of decontextualized snark untethered to an argument or context to give it much in the way of rhetorical force. But far more often the resulting pieces of writing neither mention me nor reflect much of an engagement with my arguments. As a writer really too polemical for academia and too academic for popular consumption, I can't say that this result is so surprising. However, lately I have made a practice of keeping my side of these exchanges handy so that I can at least post parts of them to my blog to see the light of day. What follows is some comparatively pithy Q & A from the latest episode of this sort of thing, edited, as it were, to protect those who would probably prefer to remain nameless in this context:

Q & A:

Q: What do you think the key moral objections are to transhumanism?

Well, I try not to get drawn into discussions with futurists about whether living as an immortal upload in the Holodeck or being "enhanced" into a sexy comic book superhero body or being ruled by a superintelligent AI would be "good" or "bad." None of these outcomes are going to arrive to be good or bad anyway, none of the assumptions on which these prophetic dreams are based are even coherent, really, so the moral question (or perhaps this is a more a question for a therapist) should probably be more like -- Is it good or bad to be devoting time to these questions rather than to problems and possibilities that actually beset us? What kind of work is getting done for the folks who give themselves over to infantile wish-fulfillment fantasizing on these topics? Does any of this make people better able to cope with shared problems or more attuned to real needs or more open to possibilities for insight or growth?

You know, in speculative literature the best imaginative and provocative visions have some of the same sort of furniture in them you find in futurological scenarios -- intelligent artifacts, powerful mutants, miraculous abilities -- but as in all great literature, their strangeness provides the distance or slippage that enables us to think more critically about ourselves, to find our way to sympathetic identification with what might otherwise seem threatening alienness, to overcome prejudices and orthodoxies that close us off to hearing the unexpected that changes things for the better. Science fiction in my view isn't actually about predictions at all, or it is only incidentally so: it is prophetic because finds the open futurity in the present world, it builds community from the strangenessand promise in our shared differences.

But futurism and tech-talk isn't prophetic in this sense at all, when you consider it more closely -- it operates much more like advertising does, promising us easy money, eternal youth, technofixes to end our insecurities, shiny cars, skin kreme, boner pills. The Future of the futurists is stuck in the parochial present like a gnat in amber. It freezes us in our present prejudices and fears, and peddles an amplification of the status quo as "disruption," stasis as "accelerating change." Futurology promises to "enhance" you -- but makes sure you don't ask the critical questions: enhances according to whom? for what ends? at what costs? Futurology promises you a life that doesn't end -- but makes sure you don't ask the critical questions: what makes a life worth living? what is my responsibility in the lives of others with whom I share this place and this moment? Futurology promises you intelligent gizmos -- but makes sure you don't ask the critical questions: if I call a computer or a car "intelligent," how does that change what it means to call a human being or a great ape or a whale intelligent? what happens to my sense of the intelligence lived in bodies and incarnated in historical struggles if I start "recognizing" it in landfill-destined consumer devices? I think the urgent moral questions for futurologists have less to do with their cartoonish predictions but with the morality of thinking futurologically at all, rather than thinking about real justice politically and real meaning ethically and real problems pragmatically.

Q: Why do you think climate change denial is so rife among this movement?

Many futurologists like to declare themselves to be environmentalists, so this is actually a tricky question. I think it might be better to say futurism is about the displacement rather than the outright denial of catastrophic anthropogenic climate change. For example, you have futurists like Nick Bostrom and Elon Musk who will claim to take climate change seriously but then who will insist that the more urgent "existential risk" humans face is artificial superintelligence. As climate refugees throng tent-cities and waters flood coastal cities and fires rage across states and pandemic disease vectors shift with rising temperatures these Very Serious futurological pundits offer up shrill warnings of Robocalypse.

Since the birth of computer science, generation after generation after generation, its intellectual luminaries have been offering up cocksure predictions about the imminence of world changing artificial intelligence, and they have never been anything but completely wrong about that. Isn't that rather amazing? The fact is that we have little scientific purchase on the nature of human intelligence and the curiously sociopathic body-alienated models of "intelligence" that suffuse AI-enthusiast subcultures don't contribute much to that understanding -- although they do seem content to code lots of software that helps corporate-military elites treat actually intelligent human beings as if we were merely robots ourselves.

Before we get to climate change denial, then, I think there are deeper denialisms playing out in futurological sub(cult)ures -- a terrified denial of the change that bedevils the best plans of our intelligence, a disgusted denial of the aging, vulnerable, limited, mortal body that is the seat of our intelligence, a horrified denial of the errors and miscommunications and humiliations that accompany the social play of our intelligence in the world. Many futurists who insist they are environmentalists like to talk about glorious imaginary "smart" cities or give PowerPoint presentations about geo-engineering "technofixes" to environmental problems in which profitable industrial corporate-military behemoths save us from the destruction they themselves have caused in their historical quest for profits. The futurists talk about fleets of airships squirting aerosols into the atmosphere, dumping megatons of filings into the seas, building cathedrals of pipes to cool surface temperatures with the deep sea chill, constructing vast archipelagos of mirrors in orbit to reflect the sun's rays -- and while they are hyperventilating these mega-engineeering wet-dreams they always insist that politics have failed, that we need a Plan B, that our collective will is unequal to the task. Of course, this is just another variation of the moral question you asked already. None of these boondoggle fantasies will ever be built to succeed or fail in the first place, there is little point in dwelling on the fact that we lack the understanding of eco-systemic dynamics to know whether the impacts of such pharaohnic super-projects would be more catastrophic than not, the whole point of these exercises is to distract the minds of those who are beginning to grasp the reality of our shared environmental responsibilities from the work of education, organization, agitation, legislation, investment that can be equal to this reality. Here, the futurological disgust with and denial of bodies, embodied intelligence, becomes denial of the material substance of political change, of historical struggle, bodies testifying to violation and to hope, assembled in protest and in collaboration.

Many people have been outraged recently to discover that Exxon scientists have known the truth about their role in climate catastrophe for decades and lied about it to protect their profits. But how many people are outraged that just a couple of years ago Exxon-Mobile CEO Rex Tillerson declared that climate change is simply a logistical and engineering problem? This is the quintessential form that futurological climate-change displacement/denialism takes: it begins with an apparent concession of the reality of the problem and then trivializes it. Futurology displaces the political reality of crisis -- who suffers climate change impacts? who dies? who pays for the mitigation efforts? who regulates these efforts? who is accountable to whom and for what? who is most at risk? who benefits and who profits from all this change? -- into apparently "neutral" technical and engineering language. Once this happens the demands and needs diversity of the stakeholders to change vanish and the technicians and wonks appear, white faces holding white papers enabling white profits.

Q: What are the most obvious historical antecedents to this kind of thinking?

Futurological dreams and nightmares are supposed to inhabit the bleeding edge, but the truth is that their psychological force and intuitive plausibility draws on a deeply disseminated archive of hopes and tropes... Eden, Golem, Faust, Frankenstein, Excaliber, Love Potions, the Sorcerer's Apprentice, the Ring of Power, the Genie in a Bottle, the Fountain of Youth, Rapture, Apocalypse and on and on and on.

In their cheerleading for superintelligent AI, superpowers/techno-immortalism, and digi-nano-superabundance it isn't hard to discern the contours of the omni-predicates of centuries of theology, omniscience, omnipotence, omnibenevolence. Patriarchal priests and boys with their toys have always marched through history hand in hand. And although many futurologists like to make a spectacle of their stolid scientism it isn't hard to discern the old fashioned mind-body dualism in their digital-utopian virtuality uploading fantasies. Part of what it really means to be a materialist is to take materiality seriously, which means recognizing that information is always instantiated on a non-negligible material carrier, which means it actually matters that all the intelligence we know as such as yet has been biologically incarnated. There is a difference that should make a difference to a materialist in the aria sung in the auditorium, heard on vinyl, pulled up on .mp3. Maybe something like intelligence can be materialized otherwise, but will it mean all that intelligence means to us in an imaginative, empathetic, responsible, rights-bearing being sharing our world? And if it doesn't is "intelligence" really the word we should use or imagine using to describe it?  

Fascination with artifacts that seem invested with spirit -- puppets, carnival automata, sex-dolls are as old or older than written history. And of course techno-fetishism, techno-reductionism, and techno-triumphalism has been with us since before the Treaty of Westphalia ushered in the nation-state modernity that has preoccupied our attention with culture wars in the form of les querelles des anciens et des modernes right up to our late modern a-modern post-modern post-post-modern present: big guns and manifest destinies, eugenic rages for order, deaths of god and becoming as gods, these are all old stories. The endless recycling of futurological This! Changes! Everything! headlines about vat-grown meat and intelligent computers and cost-free fusion and cures for aging every few years or so is the consumer-capitalist froth on the surface of a brew of centuries old techno-utopian loose-talk and wish-fulfillment fantasizing.

Q: Why should people be worried about who is pushing these ideas?

Of course, all of this stuff is ridiculous and narcissistic and technoscientifically illiterate and all too easy to ignore or deride... and I do my share of that derision, I'll admit that. But you need only remember the example of the decades long marginalized Neoconservative foreign-policy "Thought Leaders" to understand the danger represented by tech billionaires and their celebrants making profitable promises and warnings about super-AI and immortality-meds and eco escape hatches to Mars. A completely discredited klatch of kooks who fancy themselves the Smartest Guys in the Room can cling to their definitive delusions for a long time -- especially if the nonsense they spew happens to bolster the egos or rationalize the profits of very rich people who want to remain rich above all else. And eventually such people can seize the policy making apparatus long enough to do real damage in the world.

For over a generation the United States has decided to worship as secular gods a motley assortment of very lucky, rather monomaniacal, somewhat sociopathic tech venture capitalists few of whom every actually made anything but many of whom profitably monetized (skimmed) the collective accomplishments of nameless enthusiasts and most of whom profitably marketed (scammed) gizmos already available and usually discarded elsewhere as revolutionary novelties. The futurologists provide a language in which these skim and scam operators can reassure themselves that they are Protagonists of History, shepherding consumer-sheeple to techno-transcendent paradise and even godlikeness. It is a mistake to dismiss the threat represented by such associations -- and I must say that in the decades I have been studying and criticizing futurologists they have only gained in funding, institutional gravity, and reputational heft, however many times their animating claims have been exposed and pernicious nonsense reviled.

But setting those very real worries aside, I also think the futurologists are interesting objects and subjects of study because they represent a kind of reductio ad absurdum of prevailing attitudes and assumptions and aspirations and justificatory rhetoric in neoliberal, extractive-industrial, consumer-oriented, marketing-suffused, corporate-military society: if you can grasp the desperation, derangement and denialism of futurological fancies, it should put you in a better position to grasp the pathologies of more mainstream orthodoxies in our public discourse and authorizing institutions, our acquiescence to unsustainable consumption, our faith in technoscientific, especially military, circumventions of our intractable political problems, our narcissistic insistence that we occupy a summit from which to declare differences to be inferiorities, our desperate denial of aging, disease, and death and the death-dealing mistreatment of others and of ourselves this denialism traps us in so deeply.

Q (rather later): [O]ne more thing: who were the most prominent members of the extropians list? Anyone I've missed? Were R.U Sirius or other Wired/BoingBoing writers and editors on the list? Or engineers/developers etc?

Back in Atlanta in the 1990s, I read the Extropy zine as a life-long SF queergeek drawn to what I thought were the edges of things, I suppose, and I was a lurker on the extropians list in something like its heyday. This was somewhere in the '93-'99 range, I'm guessing. I posted only occasionally since even then most of what I had to say was critical -- the philosophy seemed like amateur hour and the politics were just atrocious -- and it seemed a bit wrong to barge into their clubhouse and piss in the punch bowl if you know what I mean... I was mostly quiet.

The posters I remember as prominent were Max and Natasha-Vita More, of course, Eliezer Yudkowsky, Damien Broderick (an Australian SF writer), Eugen Leitl, Perry Metzger, Hal Finney, Sasha Chislenko, Mark Plus, Giulio Prisco, Ramona Machado, Nancy Lebovitz… You know, people tend to forget the women's voices because it was such an insistently white techbro kinda sorta milieu. I'm not sure how many women stuck with it, although Natasha is definitely a piece of work, and Romana was doing something of a proto Rachel Haywire catsuited contrarian schtick, Haywire's a more millennial transhumanoid who wasn't around back then. Let's see. There was David Krieger too (I made out with him at an extropian pool party in the Valley of the Silly Con back in 95, I do believe).

I don't think I remember RU Sirius ever chiming in, I personally see him as more of an opportunistic participant/observer/stand-up critic type, really, and I know I remember Nick Szabo's name but I'm not sure I remember him posting a lot. You mentioned Eric Drexler, but I don't remember him posting, he was occasionally discussed and I know he would appear at futurist topic conferences with transhumanoid muckety mucks like More and the cypherpunks like Tim May and Paul Hughes. I do remember seeing Christine Peterson a couple of times.

Wired did a cover story called "Meet The Extropians" which captures well some of the flavor of the group, that was from 1993. Back then, I think techno-immortalism via cryonics and nanobot miracle medicine was the big draw (Aubrey de Grey appeared a bit later, I believe, but the sub(cult)ure was ready for him for sure), with a weird overlap of space stuff that was a vestige from the L5 society and also a curious amount of gun-nuttery attached to the anarcho-capitalist enthusiasm and crypto-anarchy stuff.

It's no surprise that bitcoinsanity had its birth there, and that the big bucks for transhumanoid/ singularitarian faith-based initiatives would come from PayPal billionaires like the terminally awful robocultic reactionary Peter Thiel, given the crypto-currency enthusiasm. Hal Finny was a regular poster at extropians and quite a bitcoin muckety muck right at the beginning -- I think maybe he made the first bitcoin transaction in fact.

Back in those days I was working through connections of technnocultural theory and queer theory in an analytic philosophy department in Georgia, and the extropians -- No death! No taxes! -- seemed to epitomize the California Ideology. I came to California as a Queer National with my mind on fire to work with Judith Butler, and I was lucky enough to spend a decade learning from her in the Rhetoric Department at Berkeley, where I ended up writing my diss about privacy and publicity in neoliberal technocultures, Pancryptics. But I never lost sight of the transhumanists -- they seemed and still seem to me to symptomize in a clarifying extreme form the pathologies of our techno-fetishistic, techno-reductionist, techno-triumphalist disaster capitalism. Hope that helps!

Q (much later): Tackling this thing has been a lot more difficult than I imagined it would be. Right now it's sitting on 20,000 words and has to come down to at least half that (pity my editor!). I've gone through quite a journey on it. I still think very much that these ideas are bad and a reflection of a particularly self-obsessed larger moment, and that people should be extremely concerned about how much money is going into these ideas that could be so much better spent elsewhere. The bizarre streak of climate denialism is likewise incredibly disturbing…. But then I kind of came around in a way to sympathising with what is ultimately their fear which is driving some of this, an incredibly juvenile fear of dying. But a fear of being old and infirm and in mental decline in a society that is in denial about the realities of that, and which poses few alternatives to that fate for all of us, in a way I can understand that fear…. In any case, amazing that they let you proof read [their official FAQ] for them, even though you are so critical of their project! Or do you think they were just grateful for someone who could make it read-well on a sentence level?

You have my sympathies, the topic is a hydra-headed beast when you really dig in, I know. Nick Bostrom and I had a long phone conversation in which I leveled all sorts of criticisms of transhumanism. That I was a critic was well known, but back then socialist transhumanist James Hughes (who co-founded IEET with him) and I were quite friendly, and briefly I was even "Human Rights" fellow at IEET myself -- which meant that they re-published some blog posts of mine. (I write about that and its rather uncongenial end here.) Anyway, Bostrom and I had a wide-ranging conversation that took his freshly written FAQ as our shared point of departure. He adapted/qualified many claims in light of my criticisms, but ignored a lot of them as well and of course the central contentions of the critique couldn't be taken up without, you know, giving up on transhumanism. As a matter of fact, we didn't get past the first half of the thing. It was a good conversation though, I remember it was even rather fun. I do take these issues seriously as you know and, hell, I'll talk to anybody who is going to listen in a real way.

You know, I've been criticizing futurism for decades -- there were times when I was one of the few people truly informed of their ideas even if I was critical of them, and some of them appreciated the chance to sharpen their arguments on a critic. I've had many affable conversations with all sorts of these folks, Aubrey de Grey, Robin Hanson, Max More even. The discourse is dangerous and even evil in my opinion, but its advocates are human beings which usually means conversations can happen face to face.

I know what you mean when you say you sympathize after a fashion upon grasping the real fear of mortality driving so much of their project -- and I would say also the fear of the uncontrollable role of chance in life, the vulnerability to error and miscommunication in company. But you know reactionary politics are always driven by fear -- and fear is always sad. I mean, the choices are love or fear when it comes down to it, right? And to be driven by fear drives away so much openness to love and there's no way to respond to that but to see the sadness of it -- when it comes to it these fears are deranging sensible deliberation about technoscientific change at a historical moment when sense is urgently needed, these fears make them dupes, and often willing ones, of plutocratic and death-dealing elites, these fears lead them to deceive themselves and deceive others who are also vulnerable. One has to be clear-headed about such things, seems to me.

Q (still later): Have entered new phase: What if the Extropians were just a Discordian-type joke that other people came to take seriously?

Yes, they're a joke. But it's on us, and they aren't in on it. As I mentioned before, the better analogy is the Neocons: they were seen as peddlers of nonsense from the perspective of foreign policy professionals (even most conservatives thought so) but they were well-funded because their arguments were consoling and potentially lucrative to moneyed elites and eventually they stumbled into power via Bush and Cheney whereupon they implemented their ideas with predictable (and predicted) catastrophic consequences in wasted lives and wasted wealth. To be clear: the danger isn't that transhumanoids will code a Robot God or create a ruler species of immortal rich dudes with comic-book sooper-powers, but that they will divert budgets and legislation into damaging policies and dead ends that contribute to neglected health care, dumb and dangerous software, algorithmic harassment and manipulation, ongoing climate catastrophe, the looting of public and common goods via "disruptive" privatization, exploitative "development," cruel "resilience," and upward-failing techbro "Thought Leadership."

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Stop Worrying About the Future Robocalypse.

You already died in the robocalypse when you became somebody who can't "live" without your crappy phone.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Monday, December 14, 2015

Childhood's End (UPDATED)

(UPDATE at the end.) I'm planning to take a break from grading to watch the beginning of the (insultingly monikered and branded) "SyFy" Network's adaptation of Clarke's Childhood's End. The novel, like many of the milestones in classic SF qua "Literature of Ideas" is a symptomatic mess of infantile wish-fulfillment adolescent angst and superannuated patriarchal white privilege. It has also long been declared unfilmable, and I expect bland fare roiling with ugly assumptions and aspirations poking up through the surface from time to time -- which is usually a worthwhile breadcrumb trail to follow in this quintessentially futurological (neoliberal) era. Those who lack the patience for the three day spectacle are directed to this adjacent production:


UPDATE: Childhood's End has ended. I actually don't think it was bad in all the ways I feared it might be, but when all is said and done I did find it to be the bland business I expected, the acting at best minimally-competent, the cheese factor higher and higher each successive night, and not enjoyably so. I watched all three nights, which is something, but then I watch a hell of a lot of science fiction and it doesn't really take that much to keep me on board. The real draw, for me as for most people, quickly became the fact that The Expanse (and then The Magicians, which I thought pretty disastrously bad as someone who appreciated the books) was coming on right after each CE installment ground its way to a halt.

I got some pushback for declaring CE, like so much "Golden Age" Science Fiction symptomatically white-racist, mostly due to the famous inclusion in it of Jan Rodricks as The Last Man. The investment of the televised version of Rodricks with actual social-cultural-positional substance makes the case a little less cut and dried for the mini-series -- as does its omission of the whole poor persecuted whites of post-Apartheid South Africa, hardy har har. But I always found Rodricks worse than just the exception that proves what we all know was and to an ugly extent remains the "hard sf" rule on race: in making the written Rodricks such a conspicuously non-threatening abstraction, such a non white-guilt inducing liberal "post-racial" fantasy of Blackness I still actually consider the gesture a symptom rather than an overcoming of racism. I am happy to concede the point is arguable, but that really has always been the way it felt to me personally in the book.

Some dumb transhumanists linked to this post, castigating its absurdly idiotic comments. Since the post was mostly expressing a few anticipatory fears rather than making any kind of extended argument or critique (of something I had not yet seen after all) it is perplexing what is supposed to be so "idiotic" about saying so, unless it is the link to the Carpenters video that is the problem, which was admittedly just a bit of silliness pretty clearly offered up as such. If you read the linked article in which my post is derided for its idiocy you will find that it goes on to make a case for transhumanists flying their freak flags high and admitting that they are really (actually? aspirationally?) Overlords themselves. Of course, that the transhumanists are Overlord-Wannabes is more or less what makes them robot cultists in the first place, so it is hard to see why they pout and stamp when I say so about them myself on a regular basis. It is especially hilarious to realize that, strictly speaking, in both the book and the mini-series the Overlords are really just the Orc army to the Overmind's Sauron, too stupid to be psionically fattened up into a meal satisfying the tastes of the top predator in the cosmic food chain (not a bad way to think of God if one really must) like humans and the unlucky denizens of the other "supervised" planets turned out to be. The Overlords are just dumb grunts doing the dirty work of the Universe's Ultimate Hungry Hungry Hippo. Leave it to body-loathing abacus-wannabe transhumanoids to swallow the Overmind's line that eir prey are somehow transcending childhood to become "pure" energy bliss-borganisms as they get digested. Yeah, get a load of our robo-cultic "Overlords"! Hey, they can't fly in space or cure cancer but they've got website manifestos about how great it would be to be a math problem in the cloud.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Republicans Really Put The Baseness In Base

According to the results of today's major CBS/NYT Poll, Trump is back on top with a considerable lead, but what is truly striking is the realization that adding Trump's 35% support (for a white supremacist) to Cruz's 16% support (for a fascist) to Carson's 13% support (for a theocrat), fully 64% of likely Republican primary voters are embracing full on fulminating tyrannical anti-civilizational insanity. Republican fear -- of the brown and the queer -- really is bringing the slaughterhouse here.    

Sweet Spiritual Prosthetics

The Do Duh-thing Party

When a Republican shouts "do something!" don't forget to pronounce the silent "stupid" always implied at the end.

So Generous When It Comes To Death and Destruction

Those most eager to embrace the costs and casualties of war are also those most eager to reject the costs and casualties of diplomacy.

With the Usual Nod to Wilde

"The Future" is a form of present-day ugliness so intolerable that futurists change the way they sell it every six months.

What's Next?

Futurists, like other fashion writers, live on the ongoing confusion of the next with the new.

Betting on Betting

A bet is never an argument, but futurists and market ideologues are always betting it will pass for one.

Wednesday, December 09, 2015

Khaleesi Is Coming to Westeros

It's been almost thirty years since a woman was named TIME's Person of the Year, but I suspect someone thinks it won't be another thirty years before it happens again.

Funny

Those most eager to embrace the costs and casualties of war are also those most eager to reject the costs and casualties of diplomacy.

Clinton Campaign Exposes Trump's Bigotry As GOP Orthodoxy

Tuesday, December 08, 2015

Long Teaching Day

Last day teaching in the City -- after which I will be up to my neck in papers and projects to grade, I'm afraid. Although students lately seem to expect the last day to be a perfunctory affair, I actually continue to teach right to the end, with my mannered comedy course ending on Ab Fab and my critical theory survey taking up Donna Haraway and Gayatri Spivak's Planetarity. The readings have the added freight of crystallizing or at any rate culminating key themes from the course. Sometimes the classroom takes on a somewhat Bacchanalian edge, which I suspect has to do with the proportion of the students who have pulled all-nighters. We shall see. Blogging, as always, low to no for a bit.

Monday, December 07, 2015

By Your Ew-nemies Will You Be Known

My, that's an awful lot of prudery in catsuits and smug sooper-genius anti-intellectualism they got there.

On Compulsory Voting

Sunday, December 06, 2015

Contradiction Sells

Just heard a commercial selling a pharmaceutical with the enthusiastic slogan "Opdivo works with your immune system" followed immediately by the warning "Opdivo may cause your immune system to attack your own organs."

Three Fronts in the Uploading Discussion -- A Guest Post by Jim Fehlinger

Longtime friend and friend-of-blog Jim Fehlinger posted a cogent summarizing judgment (which doesn't mean concluding by any means) of the Uploading discussion that's been playing out in this Moot non-stop for days. I thought it deserved a post of its own. In the Moot to this post, I've re-posted my responses to his original comments to get the ball rolling again. I've edited it only a very little, for continuity's sake, but the link above will take the wary to the originals.--d

It strikes me that this conversation (/disagreement) has been proceeding along three different fronts (with, perhaps, three different viewpoints) that have not yet been clearly distinguished:

1. Belief in/doubts about GOFAI ("Good Old-Fashioned AI") -- the 50's/60's Allen Newell/Herbert Simon/Seymour Papert/John McCarthy/Marvin Minsky et al. project to replicate an abstract human "mind" (or salient aspects of one, such as natural-language understanding) by performing syntactical manipulations of symbolic representations of the world using digital computers. The hope initially attached to this approach to AI has been fading for decades. Almost a quarter of a century ago, in the second edition of his book, Hubert Dreyfus called GOFAI a "degenerating research program":
Almost half a century ago [as of 1992] computer pioneer Alan Turing suggested that a high-speed digital computer, programmed with rules and facts, might exhibit intelligent behavior. Thus was born the field later called artificial intelligence (AI). After fifty years of effort [make it 70, now], however, it is now clear to all but a few diehards that this attempt to produce artificial intelligence has failed. This failure does not mean this sort of AI is impossible; no one has been able to come up with a negative proof. Rather, it has turned out that, for the time being at least, the research program based on the assumption that human beings produce intelligence using facts and rules has reached a dead end, and there is no reason to think it could ever succeed. Indeed, what John Haugeland has called Good Old-Fashioned AI (GOFAI) is a paradigm case of what philosophers of science call a degenerating research program.

A degenerating research program, as defined by Imre Lakatos, is a scientific enterprise that starts out with great promise, offering a new approach that leads to impressive results in a limited domain. Almost inevitably researchers will want to try to apply the approach more broadly, starting with problems that are in some way similar to the original one. As long as it succeeds, the research program expands and attracts followers. If, however, researchers start encountering unexpected but important phenomena that consistently resist the new techniques, the program will stagnate, and researchers will abandon it as soon as a progressive alternative approach becomes available.
[That research program i]s still degenerating, as far as I know.

Dale and I agree in our skepticism about this one. Gareth Nelson, it would seem (and many if not most & Hists, I expect) still holds out hope here. I think it's a common failing of computer programmers. Too close to their own toys, as I said before. ;-&

2. The notion that, even if we jettison the functionalist/cognitivist/symbol-manipulation approach of GOFAI, we still might simulate the low-level dynamic messiness of a biological brain and get to AI from the bottom up instead of the top down. Like Gerald Edelman's series of "Darwin" robots or, at an even lower and putatively more biologically-accurate level, Henry Markram's "Blue Brain" project.

Gareth seems to be on-board with this approach as well, and says somewhere above that he thinks a hybrid of the biological-simulation approach and the GOFAI approach might be the ticket to AI (or AGI, as Ben Goertzel prefers to call it).

Dale still dismisses this, saying that a "model" of a human mind is not the same as a human mind, just as a picture of you is not you.

I am less willing to dismiss this on purely philosophical grounds. I am willing to concede that if there were digital computers fast enough and with enough storage to simulate biological mechanisms at whatever level of detail turned out to be necessary (which is something we don't know yet) and if this sufficiently-detailed digital simulation could be connected either to a living body with equally-miraculously (by today's standards) fine-grained sensors and transducers, or to a (sufficiently fine-grained) simulation of a human body immersed in a (sufficiently fine-grained) simulation of the real word -- we're stacking technological miracle upon technological miracle here! -- then yes, this hybrid entity with a human body and a digitally-simulated brain, I am willing to grant, might be a good-enough approximation of a human being (though hardly "indistinguishable" from an ordinary human being, and the poor guy would certainly find verself playing a very odd role indeed in human society, if ve were the first one). I'm even willing to concede (piling more miracles on top of miracles by granting the existence of those super-duper-nanobots) the possibility of "uploading" a particular human personality, with memories intact, using something like the Moravec transfer (though again, the "upload" would find verself in extremely different circumstances from the original, immediately upon awakening). This is still not "modelling" in any ordinary sense of the word in which it occurs in contemporary scientific practice! It's an as-yet-unrealized (except in the fictional realm of the SF novel) substitution of a digitally-simulated phenomenon for the phenomenon itself (currently unrealized, that is, except in the comparatively trivial case in which the phenomenon is an abstract description of another digital computer).

However, I am unpersuaded, Moravec and Kurzweil and their fellow-travellers notwithstanding, that Moore's Law and the "acceleration of technology" are going to make this a sure thing by 2045. I am not even persuaded that we know enough to be able to predict that such a thing might happen by 20450, or 204500, whether by means of digital computers or any other technology, assuming a technological civilization still exists on this planet by then.

The physicist Richard C. Feynman, credited as one of the inventors of the idea of "nanotechnology", is quoted as having said "There's plenty of room at the bottom." Maybe there is. Hugo de Garis thinks we'll be computing using subatomic particles in the not too distant future! If they're right, then -- sure, maybe all of the above science-fictional scenarios are plausible. But others have suggested that maybe, just maybe, life itself is as close to the bottom as our universe permits when it comes to, well, life-like systems (including biologically-based intelligence). If that's so, then maybe we're stuck with systems that look more-or-less like naturally-evolved biochemistry.

3. Attitudes toward the whole Transhumanist/Singularitarian mishegas. What Richard L. Jones once called the "belief package", or what Dale commonly refers to as the three "omni-predicates" of & Hist discourse: omniscience=superintelligence; omnipotence=super-enhancements (including super-longevity); omnibenevolence=superabundance.

This is a very large topic indeed. It has to do with politics, mainly the politics of libertarianism (Paulina Boorsook, Cyberselfish, Barbrook & Cameron, "The Californian Ideology," religious yearnings (the "Rapture of the Nerds"), cult formation (especially sci-fi tinged cults, such as Ayn Rand's [or Nathaniel Branden's, if you prefer] "Objectivism", L. Ron Hubbard's "Scientology", or even Joseph Smith's Mormonism!), psychology (including narcissism and psychopathy/sociopathy), and other general subjects. Very broad indeed!

Forgive me for putting it this insultingly, but I fear Gareth may still be savoring the Kool-Aid here.

Dale and I are long past this phase, though we once both participated on the Extropians' mailing list, around or before the turn of the century. When we get snotty (sometimes reflexively so ;-&), it's the taste of the Kool-Aid we're reacting to, which we no longer enjoy, I'm afraid.

Saturday, December 05, 2015

To, You Know, Elevate the Discourse.

If I had a copy of the NYT I'd jerk off on the editorial and send a pic to Erick Erickson.

Penile Entrancement Among the Techbros

Gun-nuttery and crypto-nuttery (crypto-anarchy, cypherpunkery, Tor-totalism, Anonymoids, etc.) are connected projects of cyborg-ruggedization compensating illimitable lack in paranoid masculinity. Crypto-anarchy and Stand Your Ground evoke the same sociopthic field, the reductio ad absurdum of rugged individualism, the shriveled dick. You know, there isn't a gun big enough or code sweet enough in all the world to make me the least bit interested in techbro peen.

Friday, December 04, 2015

Sooper Sciency!

You can always tell when a transhumanist wants something incoherent... because they call it inevitable.

More Futurological Brickbats here.

Techbro Magic, Fuckdoll Edition

If an asshole techbro lacks the sensitivity to tell the difference between a fuckdoll and a person does that make the fuckdoll a person? No, actually, stupidity isn't a magic power that transforms egregious errors into deep truths.

(And no, assholes, you are not reducible to an "info-soul" that sooper-genius coders at Google are going to "upload" from your "meat"-self into a cyberangelic form that techno-immortalizes you in the better-than-real infantile techbro wish-fulfillment fantasy of sex-pits and treasure-caves of virtual Holodeck Heaven.)

The Immaterialism of Futurological Materialism

Upgraded and adapted from the still-ongoing Moot. In response to robocultist (he affirms the designation, that isn't just name-calling) Gareth's repeated declarations to the effect that "the internal [by which he means the actually-existing material, that is to say, biological] implementation [of real-world intelligence actually in evidence] does not matter" I quipped: "Some materialist you turned out to be."

Whereupon he reacted, with robotic predictability:
Bit of a non sequitur that. I say the internal implementation does not matter so long as the external behaviour still yields intelligence, in what way does that contradict materialism? If anything, claiming that it matters whether there's neurons or silicon chips implementing intelligent behaviour is claiming there's something important about neurons that goes beyond their material behaviour.
An actual materialist should grasp that the actually-existing material incarnation of minds, like the actually-existing material carrier of information, is non-negligible to the mind, to the information. The glib treatment of material differences as matters of utter indifference, as perfectly inter-translatable without loss, as cheerfully dispensable is hardly the attitude of a materialist. One might with better justice describe the attitude as immaterialist.

Once again, you airily refer to "silicon chips implementing intelligent behavior" when that has never once happened and looks nothing like something about to happen and the very possibility of which is central to the present dispute. However invigorating the image of this AI is in your mind -- it is not real, nor is it a falsifiable thought-experiment, nor is it a destiny, nor is it a burning bush, nor is it writing on a wall, and those of us who fail to be moved as you are by this futurological fancy are not denying reality, its stipulated properties -- however fervently asserted by its futurological fanboys -- are not facts in evidence. In response to this charge you will deny, as you have done every other time I have made it, that you are in fact claiming AI is "real" or would be "easy" -- but time after time after time you conjure up these fancies in making your rhetorical case and attribute properties to them with which skeptics presumably have to deal, just because you want them to be true so fervently. Just as well argue how many angels can dance on a pin head.

And then, too, once again, in this formulation you insinuate my recognition that such real-world intelligence that actually exists all happens to be materialized in biological organization amounts to positing something magical or supernatural about brains. No, Gareth: the intelligence that exists is biological and the artificial intelligence to which you attribute all sorts of pet properties does not exist. To entertain the logical possibility that phenomena legible to us as intelligent might be materialized otherwise does not mean that they are, that we can engineer them, or that we know enough about the intelligence we materially encounter to be of any help were we to want to engineer intelligence otherwise. None of that is implied in the realization that there is no reason to treat intelligence of somehow supernatural. None of it. You may need to have a good cry in your pillow for a moment after that sinks in before we continue. It's fine, I'll wait.

Now, again, a "materialism" about mind demands recognition that the materialization of such minds as are in evidence is biological. That intelligence could be materialized otherwise is possible, but not necessarily plausible, affordable, or even useful. Maybe it would be, maybe not. Faith-based techno-transcendental investment of AI with wish-fulfillment fantasies of an overcoming of the scary force of contingency in life, an arrival at omnicompetence no longer bedeviled by the humiliations of error or miscommunication, the driving of engines of superabundance delivering treasure beyond the dreams of avarice, or offering up digital immortalization of an "info-soul" in better-than-real virtuality may make AI seem so desirable that techno-transcendentalists of the transhumanoid, singularitarian kinds want to pretend we know enough to know how do build it when we do not, but that has nothing to do with science or materialism. Gareth and his futurological friends' attitudes look to be common or garden variety religiosity of the most blatant kind, if I may say so. And even if the faithful wear labcoats rather than priest's vestments, it's not like we can't see it's all still from Party City. 
The human mind is not immune from scientific investigation and understanding, and neither is the brain (the physical implementation of the mind). That should be a fairly uncontroversial viewpoint. I simply go one further and say that human brains are not immune from simulation, and simulating a brain would automatically get you a mind. 
No one has denied that intelligence can be studied and better understood. I do wonder whether Gareth's parenthetic description of the brain as "the physical implementation of the mind" already sets the stage for his desired scene of an interested agent implementing an intelligence when there is actually no reason to assume such a thing where the biologically incarnated mind is concerned. People in robot cults should possibly take care before assuming the air of adjucating just which disputes are scientifically controversial or not, by the way. When he goes on to say "I simply go one [step] further" in turning to the claim that simulating a brain automatically gets you a mind I disagree that there is anything "simple" about that leap, or that it is in any sense a logical elaboration of a similar character to the preceding (as he implies by the word "further"). Not only does simulating a brain not obviously or necessarily "automatically" get you a mind, it quite obviously does not, and necessarily not get you the mind so simulated. To say otherwise is not materialist, but immaterialist -- but worse it is palpably insane. You are not a picture of you, and a picture of brain is not a brain, and a moving picture of a mind's operation in some respects is not the mind's operation. You may be stupid and insensitive enough not to see the difference between a romantic partner and a fuck doll got up to look like that romantic partner, but you should not necessarily expect others to be so dull if you bring your doll to meet the family or hope to elude prosecution for murdering your partner when the police come calling.

PS: In Section Three of Futurological Discourses and Posthuman Terrains I connect such pathologically robocultically extreme, immaterialist ideology as I ridicule here to more prevailing, mainstream neoliberal futurology in which immaterialist ideology plays out in, for example, celebrations or at any rate justifications for fraudulent financialization in global, digital developmentalist corporate-military think-tank discourse.

Calm Before the Storm

Last week of term looms -- and an avalanche of papers and notebooks and excuses is about to land over my head. Not feeling up to it.

Thursday, December 03, 2015

Faith-Based Digital-Utopian Accuses Skeptics of Magical Thinking

Another illuminating exchange adapted from the Moot --
a religious belief that a mind can only exist in the form of a biological brain... implies something magical about brains
One can easily concede the possibility in principle that phenomena legible as "minds" might be instantiated on non-biological structures while at once taking seriously that all consciousness properly so called has always been biological, that our understanding of consciousness and intelligence as phenomena is conspicuously incomplete, and that believers in the program of building artificial intelligence as a cohort often exhibit overconfidence incompatible with their history of failure, rely on reductive understandings of mind that have gotten them nowhere for good reason, regularly exhibit pathological hostility to the biological incarnation of mind and sociopathic hostility to the social performance of intelligence. You can dismiss those who don't ascribe to the faith-based initiative of good old fashioned artificial intelligence and its digital-utopian, cybernetic totalist, singularitarian and techno-immortal variations as religionists if you like, if that helps you sleep at night, but it isn't exactly hard to discern the religiosity of GOFAI ideology.
you would not be able to tell assuming the machine accurately copies the person's behaviour in every way
Consciousness and intelligence have subjective, objective, and inter-subjective dimensions in which they are substantiated -- when you claim your ideal machine "copies the person's behavior in every way" you must be presuming the machine is physically indistinguishable from the person and would be so even for a physician or a lover; you must also be proposing that the narrative continuity of this person would be subjectively and objectively coherent -- for instance, nobody would have witnessed the death and replacement of the person by a machine. Quite apart from the fact that none of this remotely accomplishable and so there is no reason to regard any of this as relevant to pubic policy or investment or as anything but a distraction from actually urgently relevant questions and problems (some of them related to computation and networks), to be honest your thought experiment seems to rely on a premise of indistinguishability which either disregards as irrelevant differences that actually make a difference to anybody who isn't a sociopath or which sets such a high bar for indistinguishability that it isn't clear why it wouldn't be pathological to claim the person in question had been "replaced" by a "machine" in the first place.

Big Data As Techno-Immortalization Strategy

Edited and adapted from an exchange with my friend Jim in the Moot:
Well, according to at least one prominent transhumanist, you won't even need to bother with a copy of the guy's brain. Just collect enough photographs, report cards, yearbooks, audio/video recordings, blog postings, twitter postings, etc. and you can cook up an AI simulacrum (tweaked from some kind of generic baseline human simulation, with various dials adjusted for intelligence, personality traits, temperament, etc.) that's a good enough copy (for the consumer of such a thing, if not for the original, who after all won't have any say in the matter). Hey, it's already been done on TV...
It cracks me up that Martine Rothblatt and the other robocultists making this case are more or less promising that Big Data will make us immortal cyberangels in Holodeck Heaven. It's bad enough when neocons promise Big Data will keep us safe from the terrorist hordes, but deliver us eternal life is some serious moonshine overpromising. Worried Big Data surveillance and algorithms target us for incessant harassment from advertisers? Worried Big Data profiles us in ways that determine who gets a home loan, who gets to go to college, who gets on a watchlist, eventually frames us all as prosecutable in advance for crimes not necessarily yet known? Worried Big Data not only does not "make us safe" but renders us utterly precarious and endlessly exploitable and eventually, if we really prove to be nuisances to incumbent elites, expendable or extra-judicially killable by drone? Don't worry, be happy! Hey, who am I after all to call keep calling visionary transhumanists reactionary, right? 

Tuesday, December 01, 2015

Long Teaching Day

Teaching Todd Haynes' film Velvet Goldmine in my first course in the City today (linking Wilde and Orton and David Bowie as we approach the glittery end of term), and then Hannah Arendt and CS Lewis against techno-transcendentalism in my second as my survey of critical theory arrives at my own focus at last, technocriticism. Blogging low to no.

Monday, November 30, 2015

Tech-Talk: On Truth and the Hype in an Anti-Moral Sense

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Today Is Tomorrow

The planetary precariat -- people, especially women and children and the poor, in the fifty most overexploited countries in the world -- are currently five times more likely to die from climate-related disasters than the rest of humanity: As I always teach my students, anthropogenic climate catastrophe is not dystopian futurism but present day white supremacy.

Not Holding My Breath for the Futurological Future

I'm not holding my breath waiting for futurological fancies to come true, whether post-parental sooper-intelligent Robot Gods, techno-immortal cyberangels in Holodeck Heaven, sexy sexy sexbots for sociopaths, digi-nano-3Dprinted-ubicomp treasure caves beyond the dreams of avarice, gengineered comic book eugenic hardbodies, boutique green consumers and profitable megascale corporate-military geoengineering wetdreams to heal a world devastated by wasteful, barren consumer society and profitable corporate-military extractive-industrialism, skim-and-scam artist celebrity venture-capitalist CEOs as Randroidal fountainheads: It's so hard to hold one's breath and laugh at the same time.

Saturday, November 28, 2015

Techbros Will Be Techbros


Oh, boys and their preoccupation with their STEM.

My Silly Skepticism About AI and Uploading

The following is edited and adapted from the Moot to this post, an exchange with "Gareth Nelson" (his contributions are italicized, follow the link for the unedited version and context) very much like countless exchanges I have had with cocksure robocultic AI-deadenders over the past few decades, but what the hell, new readers may not be bored unto death at such re-hashes as I am. By all means follow the link and make your own contributions, if you like.

Dale -- you've said (and I love this quote of yours) "a picture of you is not you", which is entirely true and I do not claim it is at all possible to "transfer" conciousness from a brain into a computer. But if we stick with the picture analogy, I would argue that a copy of a picture is still as useful for the same purposes. When we look at a beautiful work of art, we derive pleasure from appreciating the skill of the artist... assuming the copy is of high quality we can use it for the same purposes -- appreciating the beauty.

Setting aside the obvious fact that collectors spend millions for originals while disdaining reproductions for reasons that are not entirely dismissable as snobbery, I have no objection to the fact that some people might want to believe they get the same value from a recent digitally animated Aubrey Hepburn avatar selling a candy bar as they do from her actual performance in Sabrina, I have no objection to some pervbro who wants to believe his blow up fuck doll provides as rich a relationship as he is capable of enjoying with a human partner, I have no objection to somebody who wants to believe that they make some profound connection with the Great Emancipator via his stiff animatronic duplicate in Disney World's Hall of Presidents. Hey, there's no accounting for taste.

If we say that the purpose of a brain is to yield intelligent behaviour (and secondly to control a body -- but we generally value people for what's in their cerebral cortex, not their brain stem) then a copy of a brain that yields intelligent behaviour serves the purpose just fine, at least for other people.

I'm an atheist so I don't believe the brain exists for a "purpose" in the way you seem to mean. This is not a quibble, because the theology here already figures intelligence as purposively designed in a way that smuggles your erroneous conclusions into your framing of your position in that very dispute. Your second framing of the brain as "controlling" the body is also considerably more problematic and prejudicial than you seem to realize. The brain IS the body, not a separate or superior supervisor of it. There is a whiff here of the very dualism you falsely attribute to opponents of your faith-based formulation of the "info-soul." I also think this business of introducing "control" into the picture so early is rather symptomatic, but we needn't go into all that. I do hope you see a therapist on a regular basis.
 
If you're a true materialist you accept that the brain is just a physical object with some complex chemical and electrical processes being responsible for its behaviour. It stands to reason that modelling those processes accurately should allow the same behaviour.

Not only does this assertion not "stand to reason," but it is a patent absurdity. I am a materialist in the matter of red wagons, but I hardly think a computer modeling a red wagon would be one, even if it might generate an image I would recognize as the representation of one. I certainly would not expect a modeled red wagon to be capable of all the things a red wagon is, nor (knowing what I do know of computer modeling) would I expect that those shared recognizably red wagonish effects would be achieved in the same way by the red wagon and the red wagon model. Not incidentally, I do not agree that we know at present that the material processes that give rise to the experience of thought (including the experience of witnessing its exhibition in others) are reducible to only those chemical and electrical processes in the brain -- and also possibly elsewhere in the body -- that we presently know and in the way we presently know them. They certainly might, but our present accounts are hilariously far from sufficient to pretend we know for sure. And there is no need in the least to invoke supernatural phenomena to recognize the highly provisional status of much of our present understanding of brain processes and to treat grandiloquent extrapolations from our present knowledge onto futurological imagineering predictions with extreme skepticism and their confident proponents as ridiculous.

You could get really silly and claim that a model of a human brain which "seems" intelligent is actually just simulating intelligence and the model is just accurately predicting the behaviour of a human brain and outputting that behavioural prediction, but then you're just arguing semantics.

How terrible it would be to elicit the judgment that I am being "silly" from you of all people! You are acting as though AI or simulated apparent persons are actual accomplishments, not futurological fancies, and that my skepticism about their realization given the poverty of our understanding is some kind of a denial of facts in evidence. You'll forgive me, but it is not the least bit silly nor merely semantic for me to point out that AI is not in evidence, that AI champions are always certain AI is around the corner when it serially fails to arrive, that our understanding of intelligence is incomplete in ways that seem likely to bedevil the construction of actually intelligent/agentic artifacts for some time, and that AI discourse and the subcultures of its enthusiasts have always been and remain indebted to pathological overconfidence, uninterrogated metaphors, troubling antipathies to materiality and biology, sociopathic aspirations of mastery, control, omniscience none of which bode well for the project to which they are devoted.

Future Schlock

I demand the internet of things be set to vibrate.

Friday, November 27, 2015

"Radiant AI!"

Path of the Critique of Commodity Fetishism

From the fetishism of commodities to the Culture Industry to the Spectacle to Big Data, being degraded into having, having degraded into deferring, deferring degraded into appearing, appearing degraded into being framed.