Transhumanism has already won

Paul Raven @ 01-03-2011

So claims Nikola “Socrates” Danaylov of SingularitySymposium.com, anyhow [via Mike Anissimov]. His argument is that transhumanist/Singularitarian topics and pundits (especially the ubiquitous Ray Kurzweil, who has a movie to promote) are cropping up regularly in mainstream news outlets (TIME Magazine, The Daily Show, so on and so forth).

I can see where Danaylov and Anissimov are coming from, here; transhumanism is definitely breaking the surface of the media ocean, but much like an iceberg, only a small part of it is visible to Josephine Average thus far. Sure, the internet is full of deep engagement with the technological and philosophical questions raised by transhumanism, and some of the more serious journalism attempts to grapple with the big issues, too. But I think Danaylov is caught in a kind of subcultural myopia; you could come to the same conclusion about the ubiquity of transhumanism as a discussion topic just by looking through my own RSS reader’s XML file, but there’s a big selection bias going on there. Perhaps it’s different in the US, but over here in the UK I’d be surprised if one in ten randomly selected folk-on-the-street would recognise the words transhumanism, singularity or Kurzweil. (The latter might ring a bell for veteran synthesiser collectors, of course, but they’re an even smaller demographic than transhumanists… )

Of course, if Kurzweil’s movie makes a big enough splash, that may change, but I think transhumanists could do with taking a cautionary lesson from the science fiction community which might be best summed up as “when everyone’s talking about your thing, they may not talk about it in the ways you’d have liked”. The cost of that increased media profile will be paid in pillory: rather than being a unified political movement, transhumanism is a loose collection of politely (or sometimes not so politely) warring factions, a rhizomatic network rather than a hierarchy. When the mainstream media goes out to research a story, it looks for the folk at the top of the pyramid, and it treats their take on things as representative of the collective… which means that while Kurzweil’s movie is surely going to raise the profile of transhumanism as a concept, it will do so at the price of enthroning Kurzweil as the figurehead of the entire movement.

(Yes, yes; I know he isn’t, and so do most other folk with an interest in the field. But beware the simplifying and polarising impulse of mainstream journalism: movements must be capped with a leader and placed on the political spectrum, and they’ll do both on your behalf even if you’re leaderless and disconnected from the tired Left-Right axis. Just ask your nearest anarchist.)

As a fellow-traveller (the less charitable might say camp follower) of transhumanism, this is where things start to look really interesting; the most exciting phase of any subculture is when the mainstream discovers it. My concern is that many transhumanists, being generally smart and intellectual types, are fatally underestimating the general public’s capacity for fear, disgust and ridicule; the spotlight of publicity can get pretty hot, especially when your core ideology questions deeply held cultural values. (I’m put in mind of the reaction of British culture to the punk rock explosion back in the late seventies; the politico-economic climate is similar, for a start, and transhumanism’s core interests just as transgressive of body/identity politics, if not more so.) It’s all very well to claim that you see transhumanism as a platform for a secular examination of mortality and the afterlife, but once the Daily Mail (or FOX News, or whoever) has painted you as mad scientists who want to stuff yourselves full of silicon and live forever, you’ll have a hard time getting that philosophical nuance across to the public. Visibility leads to demonisation; if you think the mainstream techgeek scene can be disparaging of transhumanism, just wait until the America’s Got Talent demographic gets a smell of blood in the water.

As an observer of culture (and as a writer of stories), this is the moment when transhumanism comes into its own for me; its internal conflicts are intellectually interesting, but it’s as it rubs up against the belief systems of the majority that sparks will start to fly, and I suspect that a lot of transhumanist advocates are going to get a pretty rude political awakening – not just from media misrepresentation, but from co-opting and branding efforts by bandwaggoning corporations, and schismatic clades of oddballs and outsiders glomming on to the parts of the ideology they like while throwing out the more troubling philosophical questions.

Luckily I have a decent excuse to be pondering such matters; I’ve been invited to be part of a panel discussing the impact of transhumanism (and Kurzweil’s movie in particular) at a Humanity+ UK meeting in London on Sunday 9th April. Given that the other panellists are likely to be proper boffins and theorists (I see Dr. Anders Sandberg is already on the list with me, which means I’m already outclassed on IQ and knowledge by at least an order of magnitude), I’m going to focus on the cultural bow wave that will form as transhumanism plows its way into the Zeitgeist. I fully expect to learn a great deal more than I teach, but I’m hoping that my fence-sitter status gives me a usefully different perspective on things.

If not, it should be an entertaining couple of hours of being made to feel incredibly stupid. 🙂

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6 Responses to “Transhumanism has already won”

  1. Doug Lance says:

    I think the most powerful aspect of Kurzweil’s strict predictions with +/- one year accuracy is that it gives society a deadline. JFK set a deadline for man to go to the moon, and we did it. Kurzweil is setting deadlines for advances in information technologies. With enough clout, they become self-fulfilling prophecies.

  2. Justin Pickard says:

    This is where we can begin to add a technoprogressive/bioconservative axis to the political matrix.

  3. Wintermute says:

    While transhumanism may still remain in the shallow banks of the mainstream, I do believe it passes the grandma test – that is, grandma’s digitally Antediluvian light cone of perception can be utilized as a fairly good litmus paper to dip into the mainstream consciousness; a pre-boomer high water mark to test whether a memeplex’s torrential ubiquity has truly flooded Moore’s Aquarium we’re swimming in, or if we’re just seeing our own transhumant reflections in our self-filtered echo chambers. Seeing as how my grandma – a septuagenarian who hasn’t ‘Booked her Hepburnian curled face or touchscreened a single angry avian in her life – just namedropped Kurzweil, then tree-bark dropped the most contempo issue of Time Magazine this morning “THE SINGULARITY IZ COMIN!!”, I think brother Danaylov’s suggestion of the mainstream is at least fractionally vindicated.

    If the Mainstream (is there truly a mainstream anymore or just a disintermediated intractable swamp of personal #feeds?) and Brainstream media is to be believed, we’re in a perpetual race, a game, a final species-wide solitaire whose penultimate outcomes include two possible finite states: machine-ey geek wish-fulfillment in the arms of 89 virgins bikini clad gatling-katana wielding Draenor and certain destruction through a roulette wheel of assorted existential crises – climate, population, asymmetric nuclear/biological war, take your pick. It’s an arms race I’d guesstimate is as likely to acquire the sepia patina of future fatigue and mutually assured irrelevance as the time-desaturated dead-tree posters of moon-landing American starmen adorning NASA’s great whitewashed halls gone the color of brown dwarves, ‘earmarked’ for funding-slaughter, now being converted into IMAX theater multiplexes, that are now playing! Uber-Def 3D-ified VR re-mastered mashups of the Star Wars’ clone spinoff wars.

    And transhumanists, cyberpunks don’t feel left out: Kurzweil’s hokey book-pushing star-vehicle will be embarrassing, like your dad shuttling you off to band practice “rocking” his 1976 AMC Pacer and trying to score hip cred with you by butting into your jam with his Bon Jovi keytar riffs. But wear your jacks on (or below) your sleeves. For an endless Hollywood procession of light sabery Tron kitschery regurgitation is in the green thanks to the Singularity’s synergistic exponential advancements in cinema tech and marketing in the film industry. Neuromancer staring a freshly un-cryo-ed prepubescent Justin 3Bieber in a romantic leading role against Lady Gaga’s bacon-jumpsuited Molly, rendered using algorithmically re-hashed music videos, fail clips and Charlie Bit My finger cut by a Joseph Kahn-emulating version of Watson. After critical success – five Netflix hearts by “critic engines” – the unwashed will find themselves praying to their iPad overlords as they are filmically raptured by a blockbusting Singulartiarian mythology pantheon, cyclically recycling through remakes of the Matrix, followed by some vaguely Strossian techno-thriller starring Liam Neeson, returning again to remakes of Neuromancer, taking a new Beiber out of the ice box. News articles featuring schlocky crypto-New-Age-ish visuals of wire-headed Bjork-bots undulating to canned tech-conference ambient music will rule the pages of main-ish-stream media, becoming shameless, self-absorbed, and repetitive as i09. Make no mistake, they will milk the juicy mythos-space of cyberspace dry, wring it like a Big Box store squeezing yen from the maltreated underclass of an authoritarian country to put Libya to shame. But when the day comes, let us not feign surprised, for All This Has Happened Before, it’s only the Matrix version X.0, or have we forgotten the ‘80s-90s beta Singularitarianisms slogan: “We’ll all be uploaded to CD ROMs in 5 years!”

    Personally I think Singularitarianism in particular is more often than not science fictional awe gone off into the deep end, floating derelict with space-dimensia somewhere between the Kuiper belt and Hale Bopp comet. It’s sense-of-wonder entertainment curdling over decades into nonsense-of-wonder, snowballing up with fragments of flimsy vaguely related pseudo evidence and cyberspace junk into a terra-threatening near-Earth object passing ever closer each orbit. It’s a manifestation of the under-religious, over-educated strata of noosphere’s latent Messiah Complex. In the mass-secularized world where repression of the constellation of human psyche-needs once met via religion – uncertainty, loss, Deus as social worker — through self-righteous indignation dopamine rush Atheism pedaled and cash cowed by Dawkins-Hitcheons brand of feel-holier-than-though religious tar-n-feathering, Is it any wonder Singularitarianism has opened up like a relief well for the spiritual/existential God niches which the state and media fail to replace? The lidded pressure cooker of the human desire for metaphysical certainty, for life everlasting, for the Fountain, drinking from which we might be spared the unbearable ephemerality of loved beings. Infinite wireheaded happiness and joy, in unity with the Deus Ex Machina, forever and ever, Amen.

    Singularitarianism suffers from the same myopic delusions of grandeur and human magnanimity as Marx’s communism. It’s hammered in again and again like an Apostles creed by the Singuvangelists that we’re going to have all our Earthly primate problems solved, Deus Ex: the Omniscient Machine in its ineffable wisdom shall cure all our diseases, bring peace to all our intractable conflicts, bring us into eternal life, elevate us into eternal blissful joy where every potato chip tastes like a thousand orgasms, said 89 Dark Elven virgins, the answer to every question, the meaning of life, the question who’s answer is 42, etc etc..

    But guess what? We already have the resources, the wealth, to give every man woman child (and maybe every digitant cloud-based replica thereof!) a 1st world or near first world life style. Every bank-puppeted economist will sing to you the undying praises of the modern globalized free market and how thanks to business and technological innovation we’re many times better off than we were half a century ago. However, as any major non-Koch brohers funded study will tell you, as if you didn’t already know, the wealth gaps have been and are only growing into ever more impassible chasms, EVEN as the sum total of pie to go around is getting bigger. As the Barclay’s head honchos buy their fourth tropical island nation as their personal getaway, we’ve got half the planet still starving and grinding their cartilage to dust 14 hours a day for a dollar, and even in the Greatest Country on Earth we’re seeing steady decline or stagnation in living standards. Simply adding better tech to the equation does not equal better or more even distribution of that wealthier future to everyone. On the contrary, if the pattern continues, we should expect a Singularital heaven, a super-intelligence run orbital Villa Straylight on which only the long WASP procession of royalty clones shall remain, literally disconnected from the hell below.

    The human desire to compete for wealth and status and prestige and its second-order effects within complex socio-political configurations are routinely glossed over by the platonic hallowed Shangrilah-ization that permeates much Singularitarian ethos. You can try to deny that desire to compete, like some communist states and flower-throwing communes and naïve Silicon Valley programmers, and believe that billions of years of psychological evolution are just going to go away, and we’ve all seen how the Soviet experiment turned out. Somebody will always come out on top, whether that’s 500 frat brother CEOs, a genocidal dictator, an authoritarian People’s Republic, and transhumanists/Singularitarians who prefer to leave that fundamental non-linear factor out of their perfect equations for their model worlds are making their own Procrustean Beds (and the similarly deadly beds of innocent and/or ignorant bystanders) not unlike the hordes of Gaussian Copula and “Great Moderation” flaunting economists who tried to fit the world to their theories and not vice versa. And we’ve all seen starkly and painfully how that 2008 economic Singularity worked out.

    Just putting on the futurist cap a sec: the private sector is graciously accepting ( or hostile takeoverly stealing) the torch of space exploration from the decaying Gormenghast-like edifices of the Cold War forged relics of Gothic Hi-Tech (AKA NASA) as has been liberally pointed out. It follows that cyberspace and neurospace exploration, both requiring venture capital burn-rates vastly beyond the scope of any neo-hippy trust-funded proto-Google, will require massive capital flows, and will no doubt be helmed by our new CEO overlords and their 500 frat brother plutocracy banksterocracy friends as well. And if the Goldman Sachs of the world are saddled with making the Gnosis Machines… well, let’s just say they’re not exactly the apotheosis of human potential for Ghandian altruism. Do we really need to point out the Lovecraftish vampire squid in our collective room/credit cards/environments/fossil fuel conflicts/governmental bodies? Toxic waste in, toxic waste out. Any superintelligent silicon-based entity that’s going to spring forth from The Money is even LESS likely to give a shit about anyone but their creator’s well being. Yeah, we’ve got an uplink to Xanadu alright, a future superhighway / stairway to “heaven” paved with gravel crushed from the bones of the arthritic and tirelessly slaving subprime-debt laden, bargaining rightless, lower-caste Morlocks – that is, everyone other than the Ownership class –who support for eternity the blue bloods in their through endless bailouts, whips cracked by slavedriving managerial super-AIs.

  4. Athena Andreadis says:

    Tranhumorism: a mixture of messianic fervor, libertarian callousness and willful ignorance of biology.

  5. Ryan says:

    “the most exciting phase of any subculture is when the mainstream discovers it” – I would think that most people in subcultures would say that mainstreaming is the worst part. Then it becomes a battle of ‘posers’ and the ‘authentic.’

  6. Paul Raven says:

    Ryan, from a writer’s point of view, that’s exactly why it’s so interesting. 🙂