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. 🙂


An agency without agency

Paul Raven @ 11-02-2011

Yours truly, 28th January:

Egypt tweet, 28th January 2011 - Paul Graham Raven

Wired‘s Danger Room, 10th February (yesterday):

Twitter and the mainstream press are filled with rumors that Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak may be forced to step down as early as Thursday night. What does CIA Director Leon Panetta think? All he could tell a congressional panel on Thursday morning is that he, like them, is relying on the media for his info.

And how did that work out for you, folks?

Posted not for self-aggrandizement (well, maybe just a little bit), but to highlight the fact that professional intelligence gathering appears not to have caught up with the world it’s supposed to watch; another symptom of the declining reach of the nation-state in general, and the interventionist impulse in the US in particular.

You can’t control what you don’t understand; time to stop trying and start listening, maybe?


Do you want to know a secret? Social steganography

Paul Raven @ 09-02-2011

Blah blah blah, the intertubes are eroding literacy, kids these days have poor communication skills, blah. Well, if we keep measuring those skills using old metrics, it’s bound to look that way… but kids (a definition that in this instance I’d consider expanding to “web natives”, a demographic that can extend into the younger end of Gen-X, if not further) are actually very sophisticated communicators, primarily because they’re adapting fast to the fact that a lot of their personal communication occurs in publicly-accessible spaces like Facebook. When your mum (or your boss) can be keeping an eye on your wall (or your Twitter stream), you sometimes have to code your updates so that they’re only comprehensible to their intended recipients. And what better an encryption key than your shared cultural references?

Posting lyrics to communicate your mood is one of the most common social steganographic tricks, because teens are fluent in pop culture in a way their parents aren’t. What teenagers are doing reminds me of Washington’s “dog whistle” politics, in which politicians deliver speeches that sound bland but are laden with meaning aimed at their base. For instance, Republican kingmaker Lee Atwater used to advise candidates to use phrases like “states’ rights” and “forced busing” to incite racial fears among white voters without actually using offensive language.

Obviously, one could regard the emergence of youth steganography as yet more depressing evidence of how dangerously overcomplex the web has made teens’ lives. But frankly, I’m kind of awed by the rhetorical sophistication of today’s teens. They are basically required to live in public (you try maintaining friendships without an online presence), but they crave some privacy, too. So they’ve taught themselves to hack language. They hack systems, as well: [Danah] Boyd has also found teenagers who “deactivate” their Facebook account when they log off so nobody can see their stuff or post comments. Then they “reactivate” it when they want to go back online and interact with friends. Presto: They create a virtual club where they control the operating hours. Color me impressed.

I’m tempted to see this as a reappropriation of a (virtual) social space by a generation that increasingly has little access to (physical) social space, though that’s doubtless either an oversimplification of the case or a fractional component of what’s actually happening.

But I think the important thing here is that young people will always find a way to do what young people have always done: distance themselves from the adult-mediated social sphere that they feel oppresses them (c’mon, every kid feels that way, even if it isn’t necessarily true), and create a new space to populate with their own argot, their own ideas and values. Of course, if you’ve always felt intimidated by kids and their weird ways, that’ll be cold comfort… but to me it’s a clear sign that we’re not losing anything essential about our human-ness to the web, we’re just finding new ways to enact it.


Bruce Sterling on vernacular video

Paul Raven @ 25-01-2011

For those who’ve not already seen it, here’s Chairman Bruce delivering the closing keynote speech to the Vimeo Festival back in autumn of last year. Lots of paradigm demolition work towards the end, but things start off with a discussion of The Dick Van Dyke Show…

Lots of takeaway points in there:

  • every medium will get its own Kent’s Cigarettes moment, where everyone looks back at its nascence and realises some massive and heretofore overlooked ethical compromise in the sponsorship or funding of said medium. “It seemed OK at the time!”; moral complicity through consumption/creation habits
  • network culture has to push through its current youthful banality and “ennoble its own vernacular”; there’s no utility in grafting the classical terminologies of a dead medium (cinema, film) onto one that bears little or no true resemblence to it (web video)
  • “obsolesence before plateau” (every early adopter reading this will have been through this at least once; heck, my own father was a sort of pioneer of OBP, and I learned it at his knee)
  • the three certainties of futurism are Greying, Climate Change and Urbanisation (“the future looks like cities full of old people who are afraid of the sky”)

And then the last third or so is the sort of terrifyingly plausible slingshot futurism you’d expect from a cynical sf author turned pundit.

A friend of mine remarked a while ago that he couldn’t understand how Sterling gets so many speaking gigs like this: “he just turns up, tells a seemingly disconnected story about the past for half an hour, and then spends the next half hour telling the audience that they’re not as smart as they think, that their business model leaks like a sieve, and that the only thing we can be sure of about the future is that it’s going to screw over pretty much every worldview we currently hold dear!”

That’s a pretty good summary of why I pay such close attention to the guy. 🙂


Speculative entrepreneurship

Paul Raven @ 17-01-2011

Via Chairman Bruce, the next iteration of design fiction: fictional entrepreneurship.

Fictional Entrepreneurship is the use of design fiction to imagine businesses in order to discover what could be, creating things that are not impossible, but possible, often times derived from utopian, theoretical, and philosophical principles. Fictional entrepreneurship aims to author critical media through the creation of enterprises (imaginary, and real).

While reflecting on this definition, I have come to the conclusion that this concept is in no ways limited within the walls of academia, but can also be executed within a “practical,” corporate culture for the following reasons.

  1. Fictional Entrepreneurship is the design of business that begins with “what if…” in order to innovate the unimaginable.
  2. Fictional Entrepreneurship is an approach to business design which can serve as a tool for reaching new, almost impossible, demographics.
  3. Fictional Entrepreneurship is a a method that can be used by entrepreneurs to imagine the potential impact (good or bad) their business design can have on the world.
  4. Fictional Entrepreneurship is the ability to make the impractical practical.
  5. Fictional Entrepreneurship uses aspects of Design Fiction in order to work imaginatively while creating products and services that are not impossible, but possible.

I’m becoming increasingly convinced that science fiction isn’t dying at all; it’s metastasizing. When the world looks like an sf novel, sf is no longer novel.

Related: revisionist entrepreneurship. For instance, what would have happened if MySpace hadn’t been bought by Murdoch’s News Corp?

June 2005. Freston misses his flight. In the airport’s VIP lounge, he spots one of the News Corp M&A team. Freston tears back to his office and hand delivers the letter that completes the deal. Viacom, the owner of MTV, has just bought MySpace for $500m. The deal releases its co-founders, Tom Anderson and Chris DeWolfe, from Intermix, an unspectacular online retailer.

Viacom uses MySpace to redefine itself online. The site needs a complete engineering overhaul, and anything not related to music or entertainment is stripped out. MTV programming, bite-sized interviews, exclusive tracks and live shows are weaved throughout the site. “We want MySpace to keep its hacky, creative ethos,” executives might have said, “while making the site cleaner and less cluttered.”

A little Panglossian, perhaps – I think MySpace was already go-karting down into the trough of disillusionment at that point – but what you have there is a tech-biz journalist picking a comparatively recent and well-documented jonbar point and sketching an alternate history around it. See what I mean? Sf has metastasized; the cultural body is riddled with it, and it’s penetrating to the marrow.

And let’s not forget the increasing ubiquity – and ease of creation – of quasifictional characters, events, organisations, texts… Joanne McNeil of Tomorrow Museum looks at the Web of Misleading Things:

Remember the real reason for Friendster’s decline? It was the ban on “fakesters.” Friendster cracked down on user-created profiles for celebrities, places, and things, instead of embracing it as another slice of the bizarre in the spectacle of social networking. So people moved to Myspace, where non-person identities were encouraged. The site even provided space for bands and filmmakers to upload multimedia.

Now, everybody knew that’s not really Andy Warhol leaving testimonials on your page. But what about that person you know as tiny Twitter avatar? Robin Sage is a particularly interesting example (Quite a number of fictional online identities are in the image of attractive female hackers. I imagine this creates even more tension/skepticism toward women in these communities.)

[…]

So long as social media participation requires no public records or birth certificates, we are free to use these services to reinvent ourselves, regardless of what Mark Zuckerberg says.

Is there a more slippery term in the modern word than “real”?


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