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.

Singularity beef, day 5

Paul Raven @ 27-06-2011

Yup, it’s still rolling. Here’s the post-Stross posts that came in over the weekend:

Anyone else catch any goodies?

[ * Interestingly enough, Fukuyama himself has more recntly veered considerably away from the theories espoused in The End Of History… ]

[ ** For the record, I really admire Brin as a challenging thinker; I’d admire him even more if he spent less time reminding me of his past successes. ]

The Singularity is the deus ex machina of the transhumanist narrative

Paul Raven @ 05-05-2011

The presumably pseudonymous Extropia DaSilva neatly sums up my problems with Kurzweil-branch Singularitarianism (and one of the major reasons I repeatedly identify as a fellow traveller of the transhuman project rather than a card-carrier) over at H+ Magazine; in a nutshell, the Singularity is the ultimate authorial handwave:

The ancient Greeks also gave us the phrase “deus ex machina,” which the Oxford Dictionary defines as “an unexpected power or event saving a seemingly hopeless situation, especially as a contrived plot device in a play or novel.” A deus ex machina makes audiences and readers roll their eyes when they encounter it in a play or a story, and we should likewise roll our eyes when we encounter a deus ex machina being used to resolve all questions regarding the feasibility of achieving transhuman goals within our lifetime. “The Singularity will fix it” is a deus ex machina.

It also turns transhumanism into an infinitely variable explanation. Just like the myth of Demeter, you can continue to believe in the swift and inevitable success of transhuman dreams if you can invoke a godlike power that can fix anything. Hell, you can even posit a total rewrite of the laws of physics, thanks to the Singularity hacking the program that runs the universe. So even if some of our dreams turn out to violate physical laws, there is no reason to abandon faith.

To me, there is something deeply troubling about using the Singularity as a kind of protective barrier against all skepticism regarding the likelihood of achieving transhuman goals within a generation. It is difficult to reason with people who use the Singularity concept in this way, and even harder to have a logical debate with them. They have a deus ex machina to hand that can demolish any argument designed to show that transhuman dreams will not inevitably come true within our lifetime. This kind of reaction takes reasonable, scientific expectations of a brighter future and pushes them dangerously close to being an irrational pseudo-religion. And I find pseudo-religions boring.

I actually find pseudo-religions fascinating, but as subjects rather than objects; indeed, it’s the current schismatic/metastasising phase of transhumanism-as-pop-culture-meme that attracts my interest, far more than the promises of the technology on which it builds. The latter is pure speculation, which has its own intellectual rewards, but the former feels more like a chance for me to observe the way ideas spread and mutate in the antfarm of a networked global society.

(Now that I’ve typed that out, I realise it makes me sound like some sort of cultural peeping-tom. Ah, well. 🙂 )

However, lest we throw the baby out with the bathwater here, I think the Singularity has a certain value in its ability to attract attention. From a personal perspective, I would probably never have discovered transhumanism if it weren’t for the rash of science fictional Singularities I encountered over the last decade or so. Compressing the transformative power of technological change (and our convergence with such) into a momentary timeframe makes the underlying point – that we change as our technologies change, and that the relationship is a positive feedback loop – much clearer to the uninitiated.

However, that same temporal compression chimes with the transcendent Final Trumps of apocalyptic religions, and there’s a very frustrating human tendency to read metaphorical truths as literal ones (which I claim no immunity from myself, I might add); explicitly reframing the Singularity as a rhetorical narrative device might make it a slightly more useful thing, but I suspect the real root of the problem is that we all secretly long for something to swoop in and fix everything for us (hence the 90s popularity of the alien intervention narrative – surely an extant intelligence greater than [or perhaps merely different to] our own offers hope of us surviving our imminent civilisational bottlenecks?).The Singularity’s seductiveness lies in its tendency to brush aside unanswerable questions.

I imagine anyone who’s written fiction knows the temptation of the deus ex machina; the only alternative to its deployment is to think hard and rationally about ways to overcome an obstacle. Religions – and their rationality-tinged descendents, like Singularitarianism – are an inevitable by-product of human intellectual laziness.

Transhumanism is a philosophy, but Singularitarianism is a cult.

Heavy Rain: Free Will and Quick Time Events

Jonathan McCalmont @ 02-02-2011

It could have been ugly. When the French developers Quantic Dream announced that they were working on an ‘interactive film’ that used quick time events as the primary mode of player interaction you could hear the sceptical harrumphing from orbit. Many gamers compared the game to Cinematronics’ infamous laser disc-based arcade game Dragon’s Lair (1983).

Screenshot from Dragon's LairAt a time when most video games were comprised of poorly animated coloured blocks, the cartoon imagery of Dragon’s Lair was ground-breaking. Here was a game that did not simply suborn the language and titles of films; it actually looked like a film too. The only problem was that when players fed their money into the machine, they soon discovered that they didn’t actually have control over the on-screen action. Continue reading “Heavy Rain: Free Will and Quick Time Events”

Fandom as the vanguard of the new cosmopolitanism

Paul Raven @ 04-11-2010

Interesting essay from Cory Doctorow over at Locus Online; I’m always a little leery of pieces that see science fiction fandom doing that pat-ourselves-on-the-back-for-being-a-little-bit-ahead-of-the-curve thing, but I think Doctorow may have a point when he claims that fandom – alongside many other modern subcultures, it must be said – can be typified by a sort of “gourmet cosmopolitan” attitude peculiar to the post-modern (altermodern?) networked world. In passing, he also makes some interesting points about a core philosophy of science fiction stories which I’d like to see further expanded:

… we tend to think of ‘‘cosmopolitan’’ as a synonym for ‘‘posh’’ or ‘‘well-travelled.’’  But that’s not what I mean here: for me, to be cosmopolitan is to live your life by the ancient science fictional maxims: ‘‘All laws are local’’ and ‘‘No law knows how local it is.’’ That is, the eternal verities of your culture’s moment in space and time are as fleeting and ridiculous as last year’s witch-burnings, blood-letting, king-worship, and other assorted forms of idolatry and empty ritual.


Which is not to say that cosmopolitans don’t believe in anything. To be cosmopolitan is to know that all laws are local, and to use that intellectual liberty to decide for yourself what moral code you’ll subscribe to. It is the freedom to invent your own ethics from the ground up, knowing that the larger social code you’re rejecting is no more or less right than your own – at least from the point of view of a Martian peering through a notional telescope at us piddling Earthlings.


Rule 34, the Amish, and fandom’s willingness to wear its sweaters inside-out are the common thread running through the 21st century’s social transformations: we’re finding a life where we reevaluate social norms as we go, tossing out the ones that are empty habit or worse, and enthusiastically adopting the remainder because of what it can do for our lives. That is modern, sophisticated, gourmet cosmopolitanism, and it’s ever so much more fun the old cosmopolitanism obsession with how they’re wearing their cuffs in Paris, or what’s on at the Milan opera.

Comments are open: what are your thoughts? (Unless they’re along the lines of  “Doctorow is an [x]!” or “sf fans are [y]!”; these are opinions you’re entitled to, but I’d request politely that you find somewhere else to share them.)

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