A week in the unnecessary trenches of futurist philosophies

Paul Raven @ 29-06-2011

First things first: I should raise my hand in a mea culpa and admit that framing the recent spate of discussion about Singularitarianism as a “slap-fight” was to partake in exactly the sort of dumb tabloid reduction-to-spectacle that I vocally deplore when I see it elsewhere. There was an element of irony intended in my approach, but it wasn’t very successful, and does nothing to advance a genuinely interesting (if apparently insolvable) discussion. Whether the examples of cattiness on both sides of the fence can be attributed to my shit-stirring is an open question (and, based on previous iterations of the same debate, I’d be inclined to answer “no, or at least certainly not entirely”), but nonetheless: a certainty of cattiness is no reason to amplify or encourage it, especially not if you want to be taken seriously as a commentator on the topic at hand.

So, yeah: my bad, and I hope y’all will feel free to call me out if you catch me doing it again. (My particular apologies go to Charlie Stross because – contrary to my framing of such – his original post wasn’t intended to “start a fight” at all, but I’ve doubtless misrepresented other people’s positions as well, so consider this a blanket apology to all concerned.)

So, let’s get back to rounding up bits of this debate. The core discussion consisting of responses to Stross and counter-responses to such [see previous posts] seems to have burned out over the last seven days, which isn’t entirely surprising, as both sides are arguing from as-yet-unprovable philosophical positions on the future course of science and technology. (As I’ve said before, I suspect *any* discussion of the Technological Singularity or emergent GAI is inherently speculative, and will remain such unless/until either of them occur; that potentiality, as I understand it, informs a lot of the more serious Singularitarian thinking, which I might paraphrase as saying “we can’t say it’s impossible with absolute certainty, and given the disruptive potential of such an occurance, we’d do well to spare some thought to how we might prevent it pissing in our collective punchbowl”.)

The debate continues elsewhere, however. Via Tor.com, we find an ongoing disagreement between Google’s Director of Research Peter Norvig and arch-left-anarchist linguist Noam Chomsky over machine learning methodologies. As I understand it, Chomsky rejects any attempt to recreate a system without and attempt to understand why and how that system works the way it does, while Norvig – not entirely surprisingly, given his main place-of-employment – reckons that statistical analysis of sufficiently large quantities of data can produce the same results without the need for understanding why things happen that way. While not specifically a Singularitarian debate, there’s a qualitative similarity here: two diametrically opposed speculative philosophical positions on an as-yet unrealised scientific possibility.

Elsewhere, Jamais Cascio raises his periscope with a post that prompted my apology above. Acknowledging the polar ends of the futurist spectrum – Rejectionism (the belief that we’re dooming ourselves to destruction by our own technologies) and Posthumanism (the technoutopian assumption that technology will inevitably transform us into something better than what we already are) – he suggests that both outlooks are equally destructive, because they relieve us of the responsibility to steer the course of the future:

The Rejectionist and Posthumanist arguments are dangerous because they aren’t just dueling abstractions. They have increasing cultural weight, and are becoming more pervasive than ever. And while they superficially take opposite views on technology and change, they both lead to the same result: they tell us to give up.

By positing these changes as massive forces beyond our control, these arguments tell us that we have no say in the future of the world, that we may not even have the right to a say in the future of the world. We have no agency; we are hapless victims of techno-destiny. We have no responsibility for outcomes, have no influence on the ethical choices embodied by these tools. The only choice we might be given is whether or not to slam on the brakes and put a halt to technological development — and there’s no guarantee that the brakes will work. There’s no possible future other than loss of control or stagnation.


Technology is part of who we are. What both critics and cheerleaders of technological evolution miss is something both subtle and important: our technologies will, as they always have, make us who we are—make us human. The definition of Human is no more fixed by our ancestors’ first use of tools, than it is by using a mouse to control a computer. What it means to be Human is flexible, and we change it every day by changing our technology. And it is this, more than the demands for abandonment or the invocations of a secular nirvana, that will give us enormous challenges in the years to come.

I think Jamais is on to something here, and the unresolvable polarities of the debates we’ve been looking at underline his point. Here as in politics, the continuing entrenchment of opposing ideologies is creating a deadlock that prevents progress, and the framing of said deadlock as a fight is only bogging things down further. There’s a whole lot of conceptual and ideological space between these polar positions; perhaps we should be looking for our future in that no-man’s-land, before it turns into the intellectual equivalent of the Western Front circa 1918.

My rejoinder to another rejoinder to Doctorow’s rejoinder

Paul Raven @ 19-11-2010

Serendipity striketh again, in the form of Helliene Lindvall’s response to Cory Doctorow’s response to her earlier piece  attacking advocates of free-content business models for creatives. The Guardian may be missing a trick, here; this could become some sort of central-court ideology-tennis match. Give ’em a slot each on alternating days, and see how long it runs!

(My money’s on it going the distance; I think the questions around artist business models are currently unanswerable because of the economic flux we’re surfing on. Which is why the debate is important; better to design and build a wall against the coming flood than to wait until the water arrives and provides you with precise design parameters.)

Hell, better yet: set up a video recorder, let ’em do a face-to-face debate, then put it out there for the people to see… right after a lengthy argument about whether to paywall it, natch. (I think there’s a certain subtle irony to Lindvall’s piece appearing in the staunchly free-to-air online version of The Guardian… )

Aaaaanyway, it’s a more reasonable piece than Lindvall’s first, despite a few scare quotes and caricatures (“media gurus”! – is it wrong that I conjure an image of a sadhu with a cellphone when I read that phrase?):

One argument against my stance was that there’s no point in trying to prevent copying, as it’s so easy to do – and is only getting easier. It is so easy to violate the artist’s choice, why bother respecting the rules that protect that choice? However, there are many things that are easy to do, yet are not legally or morally right – for instance, posting anonymous threats saying you’d like to kill someone.

I’m not sure exactly what the rhetorical classification of that riposte is, but I think it’s a little bit reductio ad Hitlerum; comparing the copying of digital media to sending death threats is not exactly proportional in ethical terms. An attention-grabbing way to begin, though, I’ll grant you.

Just because an illegal act is easier to commit on the web, in the comfort of an anonymous mob, than in the physical world where there is a greater likelihood of apprehension doesn’t mean that our laws and ethics should somehow be suspended.

The ease of duplication is little to do with the anonymity of the web, it’s a function of the infinitely reproducible and lossless nature of digital media. Thumb-drive  sneakernet party, anyone? Exactly the same problem arose from the proliferation of cassette tapes, albeit a slower and more lossy version thereof… and the music industry defeated that problem very neatly with the compact disc. Laws and ethics shouldn’t be suspended, no; nor should the need for businesses to innovate if they wish to stay profitable.

Producing a record – as opposed to writing most books – tends to be a team effort involving a producer (sometimes several of them) and songwriters who are not part of the act, studio engineers and a whole host of people who don’t earn money from merchandise and touring – people who no one would pay to make personal appearances.

I’m sure there’s a lot of editors, agents, proofreaders, copyeditors, cover artists, layout geeks and beta readers who’ll be astonished to realise that their contribution to the production of a novel is effectively negligible. But then they’re mostly busy trying to figure out how to make their careers survive the transition to digital, so perhaps we can forgive them that oversight.

Many songwriters and producers I know have been excited about getting their songs recorded, only to see it given away as a free digital download by the artist or label. Though it may help promote the artist it does nothing to promote these writers and producers, as downloads don’t display any credits.

Surely that oversight is the fault of the label’s implementation of the free give-away, rather than the free give-away itself? The producer or writer chose to sign the contract that allowed the label to do it, right? Caveat creator; if you choose to go to bed with the money-men, you must live with the consequences. Likewise, if you make your own choices about whether to give your stuff away, you must sleep in the bed you made for yourself. Take responsibility for your own career, or don’t; simple choice, really.

Another argument used by proponents of the “free” business model is that record labels have mistreated artists for decades and so deserve to go out of business – so to them I guess two wrongs make a right.

Not sure I see where that second wrong is, here; in fact, it strikes me that the collapse of the record labels is a consequence of their own failure to act. No one is actively threatening the record label business model, it’s simply failing to adapt to a changing environment. Evolve or die. I’ll certainly cop to feeling a certain amount of schadenfreude over the demise of the big labels, but that’s probably because I’ve listened to sermons in the Church of Albini. Your karma just ran over your dogma; it’s not two wrongs making a right, it’s cause and effect. Lose public trust, lose your business.

I signed my first publishing deal almost 10 years ago with BMG, who ended up being bought by Universal. Sure, I’ve had my issues with them through the years. Yet I don’t regret signing with them as they provided me, an unproven songwriter, with the means to write music full time (I’m sure authors can relate) and develop my craft.

“I got a great deal out of my signing, therefore all signings are fair.” I refer the honourable lady once again to the Church of Albini. Perhaps his numbers there represent an equally rare but opposite polar extreme… but having spent most of my adult life around working and/or aspiring musicians, I rather suspect it isn’t.

They’ve even agreed to give the songs that haven’t yet been covered back to me – despite not having to, contractually.

Very rare, if I’m not mistaken, and a comparatively recent development; music history is littered with lawsuits by bands and songsmiths great and small who fought – often unsuccessfully – for the ownership of their own material (paging Jello Biafra). But bravo, BMG; perhaps this will become a blanket policy for all artists you sign, and all the artists you’ve signed before?

… others would argue that the principle of CC licensing is simply to give creative works away for free in what Lessig calls the “hybrid economy”. Giving away the works benefits the owners of the distribution platform, such as Flickr, YouTube or Google, not the individual creators licensing their works under Creative Commons.

And selling the works of musicians benefits the shareholders of the record companies – so where’s the difference? No one is forced to license their material as CC; no one is forced to use any particular platform to store and share their work… and there’s the difference. There’s a lot less choice once you’ve signed your contract with Sony BMG, I’m guessing. They get to make all those decisions on your behalf… and I’m sure they’ll have your best interests foremost in their minds as they do so.

And there are other issues. For instance: what constitutes “non-commercial”? Selling YouTube for $1.65bn? Selling Flickr for $35m?

“Web-based media sharing platforms in profit-making shock horror probe!” I’m pretty sure HMV and Tower Records and Amazon were always pretty interested in making a profit, too… but again, the artist didn’t get a choice about where their material ended up being sold (and, subsequently, who ended up getting a cut of the sales price). It’s a bit weird to argue for art as a commercial endeavour and then criticise proponents of a different model for using commercialised distribution channels… how shameful of them to compromise with the capitalist world around them in a way that lets their work be seen on their own terms! Hypocrites!

I believe a successful future for content creators consists of a combination of solutions, one of them being unlimited ISP music subscriptions bundled in with their broadband access deals.

I have some sympathy with this idea, as it happens, but it has all sorts of potential loopholes through which record labels can get themselves back to steady-income business-as-usual; I believe this is a process commonly referred to as “protectionism”. And hey, wait a minute – some of those ISPs are big profit-making businesses! So they’re exploitative middlemen in exactly the same way as YouTube and Flickr, are they not?

I believe it’s detrimental to suggest that creators should be defeatist and not participate in this evolution – that what they’ve created has no value so they may as well give it away.

While there’s a lot of ways to interpret Doctorow’s stance, suggesting that he’s telling creators to “not participate in [the] evolution” of the markets in which they wish to place their work is not one that I can reach with any logical train of thought; quite the opposite, in fact.

Indeed, I’d have thought that saying “leave it to the labels, the ISPs and the government to fix” was much closer to that doctrine… but hey, I give my work away on the internet, so I doubtless got brainwashed long ago. *shrug*

Y’all enjoy that new Girl Talk mash-up album, won’t you?

Rationalising the promises of transhumanism

Paul Raven @ 29-10-2010

My brain is broken today (real ale festivals: not quite so fun the day after!), so I’m devoid of my usual scintillating wit and astute commentary on the big questions of the day*. So instead, go read this lucid call-to-arms to H+ advocates and cheerleaders from Mike Treder, managing director of the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies [via Queering The Singularity].

Don’t you remember all those promises of decades past, that our awesome technologies soon would enable us to eliminate illness, to banish poverty, end aging, and control the weather? That everyone then would enjoy a world of abundance and opportunity? Don’t you realize that for people who are paying attention, this is déjà vu all over again?

No, it doesn’t work that way. It never has and it never will. Reality intrudes.

So let’s not continue to make the mistakes of the past. Let’s try to be a little smarter this time.

Instead of promoting exciting visions of a utopian future, we could shift our focus to discussions of how to better prepare for uncertain change, how to create sustainable and resilient human societies, how to live in better harmony with each other and with the rest of the natural world around us.

Shorter version: quit grandstanding, start talking to people about realistic risks and rewards. Hearts and minds.

I have a lot of sympathy with Treder’s thinking, there, but I’m not particularly optimistic about the chances of bringing rational foresight to the general population; if dumb populist soundbitery were that easily conquered, Glenn Beck would be flipping burgers for a living. But hey, that’s all the more reason to keep fighting, AMIRITES?

[ * Sorry, no refunds. ]

Is transhumanism the most dangerous idea in the world? (Hint: probably not.)

Paul Raven @ 27-09-2010

Kyle Munkittrick is making waves over at the Discover Magazine Science Not Fiction blog; he decided to air the transhumanist movement’s ideas in a post entitled “The Most Dangerous Idea In The World“.

Given that Discover is a fairly mainstream (if geeky) publication, there was a fair bit of fervent push-back in the comments thread, so Munkittrick collected together the five most common riffs for rebuttal, creating one of the most lucid and reasonable “don’t panic” posts about transhumanism in a mainstream publication that I think I’ve ever seen. His bounce-back against accusations of [transhumanism=eugenics=evil] is particularly good, and broadly applicable:

Eugenics, like any technology, is neutral. “Eu” is actually the Greek root for “good.” The problem is that over history a lot of nasty people felt that they should be able to force their definition of “good” on others. Though Hitler is a common example, there was a eugenics program in the US for quite sometime that coercively sterilized those deemed unworthy to reproduce, due to race, economic status, and mental condition. Both programs are considered “negative eugenics” in that they prevent unwanted individuals from reproducing. Positive eugenics is different in two key ways. The first is that it is entirely voluntary. Whether parents want to merely screen for potential diseases, fine-tune every detail of their child’s traits, or leave the whole thing to chance is their prerogative. The second difference is that there is no “ideal”–the process is open ended. Instead of eugenics having a state-decreed goal like blond hair and blue eyes, every parent would decide what is best for their child. As most people want healthy, intelligent, happy children, those traits are what would define the “good” of positive eugenics.

It’s interesting to watch transhumanism entering mainstream consciousness; there was that widely-linked “Open Letter to Christian Leaders on Biotechnology and The Future Of Man” doing the rounds a week or so ago, and it’s a topic that keeps cropping up in non-geek media channels with increasing regularity, probably because it pushes every future-shock techno-fear button on the switchboard.

It’s also going to be interesting to watch how transhumanism reacts to increased scrutiny, because it’s a long way from being a monoculture. The last few years have seen the more serious and level-headed advocates (I’m thinking of folk like George Dvorsky and Mike Anissimov, who are the two I’ve been reading for the longest) working hard to present a coherent, rational and non-incendiary platform for debate… but just as with any subculture, there are some real oddballs in the architecture, and it’s the cranks who tend to shout loudest and attract attention, often negative. Interesting times ahead…

Bonus: Michael Anissimov points to Eliezer Yudkowsky’s “5 minute introduction” to the concept of the Technological Singularity, which is also pretty plainly-put. Of course, the Technological Singularity shouldn’t be conflated with transhumanism, but it’s a closely related idea, and is sometimes treated as an ideology rather than a theory by those more vocal and marginal elements to whom I referred earlier… so it behoves the wise to understand both as best they can. 🙂

Science fiction, religion and rationality

Paul Raven @ 08-01-2010

As if to mirror the wider (and louder) debate of science versus religion (which I remain convinced is a false dichotomy in some respects), the science fiction scene seems to be turning its attention to the deeper philosophical underpinnings of the genre. Here are a couple of stimulating viewpoints: first of all, Ian Sales argues for science fiction as the last bastion of the rational in literature.

When Geoff Ryman founded the Mundane SF Movement in 2002, I saw it only as a bunch of sf writers throwing the best toys out of science fiction’s pram. When Jetse de Vries called for sf to be optimistic in 2008, I didn’t really understand as, to me, the genre was neither pessimistic nor optimistic.

But it occurred to me recently that these two attempts to change how science fiction thinks about itself are themselves symptomatic of the erosion of the scientific worldview in the public arena. By excluding the more fanciful, the more fantastical, tropes in sf, Mundane SF forces writers and readers to engage with known science and a scientific view of the world. And optimistic fiction, by focusing on “possible roads to a better tomorrow”, acknowledges that situations exist now which require solutions. It forces us to look at those situations, to examine the world and not rely on on a two-thousand-year-old fantasy novel, or the opinions of the scientifically-ignorant, for our worldview.

Meanwhile, over at Tor.com Teresa Jusino discusses the ways science fiction stories address the questions raised by religion:

What all of these stories do well with regard to religion (with the exception of The Phantom Menace, which did nothing well) is capture what I think the discussion should really be about. Most people who debate science vs. religion tend to ask the same boring question. Does God exist? Yawn. However, the question in all of these stories is never “Do these beings really exist?” The question is “What do we call them?” It’s never “Does this force actually exist?” It’s, “What do we call it?” Or “How do we treat it?” Or “How do we interact with it?” One of the many things that fascinates me about these stories is that the thing, whatever it is—a being, a force—always exists. Some choose to acknowledge it via gratitude, giving it a place of honor, organizing their lives around it and allowing it to feed them spiritually. Others simply use it as a thing, a tool, taking from it what they will when they will then calling it a day. But neither reaction negates the existence of the thing.

Good science fiction doesn’t concern itself with “Does God exist?”, but rather “What is God?” How do we define God?  Is God one being that created us? Is God a race of sentient alien beings that see all of time and space at once and is helping us evolve in ways we are too small to understand? Is God never-ending energy that is of itself? And why is it so important to human beings to define God at all?  To express gratitude to whatever God is? Why do people have the need to say “thank you” to something they can’t see and will probably never understand? To me, these are the important questions. They’re also the most interesting.

I’ve got a lot of time for Jusino’s arguments (despite my being an atheist), because her observations chime with my own: the stories that have stuck with me most strongly are those that project new ideas into the conceptual space between human consciousness and the universe in which that consciousness exists. One of the most interesting aspects of those questions is the way that the same evidence (or lack thereof) ends up being used as a confirmation of worldview by both sides of the fence; it all seems to boil down to whether you choose to see a “god in the gaps” or embrace the gaps as proof of the absence of a deity. Sure, there’s acres of philosophical battlefield between the two outlooks, but (as Jusino points out) there’s a lot more common ground than either side is keen to publicly admit.

That said, I’ve a lot of sympathy with Sales, too; the increasingly loud importunings of evangelicals, Biblical literalists, creationists and other cranks (not all of whose motivations or worldviews, it should be pointed out, are prompted primarily by religion) are doing visible damage to public discourse, not just in the States but worldwide. Jusino points out that there’s no necessary disconnect between believing in God and accepting the theory of evolution, and I’m convinced that the vast majority of people share that outlook; however, it seems to be those that don’t share it who shout loudest and longest.

So perhaps we do need more pulpits of rationality, more agitators for progress and foresight, more calm clear voices to balance the shrill and shrieking… and science fiction would seem ideally suited to such a purpose, if only because of its underlying philosophical roots; this is one of the reasons I consider myself a ‘fellow traveller’ with the Mundane and Optimistic SF movements. But I’m leery of prescriptivism, too; science fiction, like all art, should be allowed to find its own way through the individual journeys of its practitioners.

The sf scene’s ability and will to debate (through its fictional output, and in its public discourse) topics that many people find irrelevant or boring – racism, sexism, homophobia, religious intolerance, to name but a few – has always seemed to me to be its greatest strength; perhaps having the debate is, in some ways, more important than reaching a conclusion.

Next Page »