The Golden Age of Introversion

Paul Raven @ 03-08-2011

Via Kottke, a piece at The Atlantic that offers up the internet as the best thing that ever happened to introverts:

For introverts like myself, it takes energy to engage with other people. Doing so requires thoughtfulness. It’s tiring. Expending energy, for us, isn’t energizing. Please note: we’re not talking about shyness, some character flaw. The problem isn’t with the introvert — it’s with the demands you make on the introvert. An introvert can’t force an extrovert to sit quietly in a room and read a book, but extroverts (and the stigmas they’ve inadvertently created) can impose social demands with ease…

Hmm. Speaking as an introvert, I can certainly see where the charmingly-named Mister Bump is going with this; asynchronous communications are vastly preferable to unexpected phonecalls (I could count the number of voice calls I’ve made or received from people outside my family in the last year on my fingers and still have some spare), and the ability to work effectively as part of a team without having to endure physical proximity – or the social-lubricant conversation that comes with it – is a great relief to me.

What I’m not so keen on is the air of oppressed superiority that exudes from Bump’s post as it continues; a smugness, a meek-are-inheriting-the-earthness. I also resent the portrayal of introverts as having to lie and deceive in order to avoid situations they find uncomfortable. Maybe in the world of business the face-to-face meeting is unavoidable, but what sort of idiotic statement is “[c]ars were invented, meaning you had no excuse for not traveling across town”? Did you need an excuse, other than “sorry, I’m doing something else then?” Why rely on this “illusion of busyness” that social media apparently allows you to construct so much more easily? Is American culture really so different to British that the notion of saying to someone “no, actually I just stayed at home and read books all weekend, it was lovely” is somehow a betrayal of your national values?

(If that really is the case, then stop the presses – I think I may have found one of the root causes of your current cultural malaise. This obsession with taking sides in a warring binary schism is clearly not limited to the political arena, and it’s going to tear your nation apart if you don’t let it go.)

As the old joke goes: there are two sorts of people in the world, those who divide the world into two sorts of people and those who don’t. Introverts aren’t better than extroverts, or vice versa; we’re just wired differently. OK, sure, perhaps network culture has brought introverts opportunities for fulfilling work and social lives that had been erased by industrialisation and urbanisation; that’s surely a fine thing, especially if you’re an introvert.

But if you are an introvert, you might want to consider that perhaps framing your introversion as some sort of cultural face-off with the other half of the population may be a more dominant cause of your sense of put-upon-ness than the extroverts themselves.

Just sayin’.


Paleotranshumanism

Paul Raven @ 08-06-2011

George Dvorsky muses on a more practical manifestation of the transhumanist urge: rather than wait for the ol’ silicon Rapture to take all the effort out of transcending the limitations of Meatbag Mk. 1, why not use what we already know about the body to get the best out of it? Dvorsky suggests that the latter is true to the spirit of the transhuman project, while the former is a sort of futurist hipsterdom – a lip-service gig, like carrying around unread Nietzsche books at college.

Indeed, there are a number of things we can do to extend our capacities and optimize our health in a way that’s consistent with transhumanist ideals—even if it doesn’t appear to be technologically sophisticated. While the effects of these interventions are admittedly low impact from a future-relativistic perspective, the quest for bodily and cognitive enhancement is part of the broader transhumanist aesthetic which places an emphasis on maximal performance, high quality of life, and longevity.

Consequently, anyone who professes to be a transhumanist, but does nothing to improve upon himself, is a poser. These are the people who are waiting for the magic to happen, and by consequence, are neglecting their full potential in the present moment. Transhumanism is something that’s applied in the here-and-now; it’s a recognition of the radical present and all that it has to offer.

Sure, part of being a transhumanist involves the bringing about of a radical future, including scientific research and cheerleading. But it’s also a lifestyle choice; transhumanists actively strive to exceed their body’s nascent capacities, or, at the very least, work to bring about its full potential. In addition to building a radical future, a transhumanist is someone who will, at any time in history, use the tools and techniques around them to maximize their biological well-being. And while there are a number of technological interventions at our disposal–things like pharmaceuticals, implants, and hand-held devices—there is an alternative and seemingly old-fashioned approach to bodily enhancement that’s gaining considerable currency in transhumanist sub-cultures.

Interesting for two reasons: firstly, it places transhumanism at the far end of a much longer and older tradition of physical and mental self-improvement (which, come to think of it, is a legitimising argument in favour of the transhumanist philosophy that does much to normalise it away from the utopian technotranscendence thing); secondly, Dvorsky seems to be subtly drawing a line in the sand between the dilettantism of what I’m starting to think of as “street-culture transhumanism” and the serious practice of those transhumanists whose real goals are longevity/immortality and a personal transcendence of corporeal human limitations.

This is another of those schismatic fractures that keep appearing as the H+ meme spreads and mutates through the global body politic; I suspect the Paleotranshumanists have realised that the philosophy is getting diluted, and are trying to fence off a set of core “pure” ideologies and practices with which to define themselves in opposition to (or to the outright exclusion of) the dilettantes. Or, to put it another way, Dvorsky is arguing for a concretisation of transhumanism’s narrative metaphor: an acting-out of stated principles in the best ways currently available, rather than a thumb-twiddling wait for the tools that will complete the job with one swift wave of the magic technowand.

As stated earlier, the primal approach is a stop-gap measure for transhumanists until something better comes along. Those looking to optimize their health and performance in the here-and-now should seriously consider adopting this lifestyle.

This approach is certainly a “soft” form of transhumanism and it’s definitely no match for what’s still to come. Our transition away from Homo sapiens will be accompanied by more impactful technologies—interventions like genomics, cybernetics, neuropharma, and molecular nanotechnology. Once we have access to these technologies we will truly be able invoke the “trans” in “transhumanism” as our species migrates into a posthuman and potentially post-biological condition.

Not quite “put up or shut up”, but a definite attempt to redefine transhumanism as a physical practice rather than a purely intellectual pursuit.


To end the nightmare, one must first wake up

Paul Raven @ 10-01-2011

Well, that was one of the more depressing Saturday evenings I’ve had in a while. As I’m not a US citizen, I’m not going to get deeply embroiled in the political debate rippling out from the Giffords shooting, except to say that if there’s one thing I think both sides should take away from this deeply saddening development, it’s that you’ve had a little warning about just how close you are to ripping your country apart down the middle – not along a neat geographical line, but along countless fracture points and tears in every city, town, street and community, in every state.

Republicans and Democrats alike claim to be “doing what’s best for America”; I think perhaps it’s high time everyone sat the hell down and decided to define what – or more importantly who – America is. Because it’s you – and your appointed masters seem to have conveniently forgotten that component of the whole representational-democracy gig. It’s looking a lot like Loughner isn’t a self-appointed agent for either side, but to see how easily and quickly both sides instantly claimed the shooting as an operation of their opponents was terrifying. No, violent political rhetoric and polarised partisanship isn’t the whole story… but it’s a damn big component of it. And unless you all push for them to stop it, it’s just going to carry on.

I tweeted as the news was breaking:

This is why bipolar party politics is one of our civilisational millstones; if people will fight over sports, they’ll kill over a country.

John Scalzi echoed that sentiment with greater depth on Sunday:

And now is a fine time to ask whether the Gingrich strain of rhetoric is past its sell-by date. I think it is. I think it encourages bad politics; it’s a primary tool in making the manner in which people think of politics in the United States the same as they think about football games. […] what’s good for the 10-Qs of publicly-traded entertainment companies who happen to own cable news networks and newspapers or the ratings of radio stars and reality shows isn’t necessarily what’s good for the actual political health of the nation.

I wish people were smart enough to recognize this. If one result of this shooting is that we start to think about it more, it’ll be a thin silver lining to a very dark cloud. Even if the shooting eventually turns out to be unrelated to the current state of political rhetoric in the country.

Implicit in that wish (or so it seems to me) is the desire to not see the exact opposite – namely political haymaking off the back of a tragedy, as neatly satirised by this post-9/11 essay reblogged at BoingBoing:

Many people will use this terrible tragedy as an excuse to put through a political agenda other than my own. This tawdry abuse of human suffering for political gain sickens me to the core of my being. Those people who have different political views from me ought to be ashamed of themselves for thinking of cheap partisan point-scoring at a time like this. In any case, what this tragedy really shows us is that, so far from putting into practice political views other than my own, it is precisely my political agenda which ought to be advanced.

The saddest thing about that essay is how many times since 9/11 we’ve heard exactly that argument, delivered from both sides of the imaginary fence in almost every country in the world. And it’s that imaginary fence that’s the problem, the whole Red vs. Blue thing. If we continue to believe that we can reduce the complex challenges of global civilisation to a zero-sum game between two diametrically opposed and mutually exclusive choices of ideology, we shouldn’t be surprised when people start taking extreme steps for the side they identify with.

If you really need a fence, how about one that separates those who value ideology over human dignity from those who’re willing to accept that a rising tide should float all boats? By way of illustration, another post from BoingBoing shows a moment of non-partisan unity against extremist terror.

Egypt’s majority Muslim population stuck to its word Thursday night. What had been a promise of solidarity to the weary Coptic community, was honoured, when thousands of Muslims showed up at Coptic Christmas eve mass services in churches around the country and at candle light vigils held outside.

From the well-known to the unknown, Muslims had offered their bodies as “human shields” for last night’s mass, making a pledge to collectively fight the threat of Islamic militants and towards an Egypt free from sectarian strife.

“We either live together, or we die together,” was the sloganeering genius of Mohamed El-Sawy, a Muslim arts tycoon whose cultural centre distributed flyers at churches in Cairo Thursday night, and who has been credited with first floating the “human shield” idea.

I was particularly lifted by this paragraph:

“This is not about us and them,” said Dalia Mustafa, a student who attended mass at Virgin Mary Church on Maraashly Street. “We are one. This was an attack on Egypt as a whole, and I am standing with the Copts because the only way things will change in this country is if we come together.”

Now, by way of an experiment, let’s just change a few words:

“This is not about us and them. We are one. This was an attack on Humanity as a whole, and I am standing with my fellow Humans because the only way things will change on this planet is if we come together.”

Some of you are probably shaking your heads at my naive idealism right now; to you I ask – with a genuine curiosity to know your answer – what it is that makes you feel you have more of a right to a life of peace and sufficiency than anyone else who walks the face of the earth? If you can recognise your own desire for those things, how can you fail to recognise those same desires as they manifest in the vast majority of people everywhere, no matter what colour their skin is, no matter what god (or lack thereof) they choose to believe in? Perhaps you think that people who believe different things to yourself have been brainwashed or stirred up by clerics or politicians; if so, then look to the motes in your own eye, and wonder where they might have come from.

The Greek root of the word “politics” comes from the word for “citizen” or “civilian”; I think it’s time we reasserted that meaning. We are all citizens of one planet, with nowhere to run to. Either we all share it, or we fight to the death for the right to rule the ruins.

I believe that’s what political pundits like to refer to as “a no-brainer”.


The three schools of Singularitarianism

Paul Raven @ 12-02-2009

Ray KurzweilThe announcement of Ray Kurzweil’s Singularity University project (and the inevitable backlash against it) has people talking about the S-word again… much to the ire of transhumanist thinkers like Michael Anissimov, who points out that there are three competing ‘schools’ of thinking about the Singularity, each of which hinges on a different interpretation of a word that has, as a result, lost any useful meaning.

The “Accelerating Change” school is probably the closest to Kurzweil’s own philosophy, but it is also Kurzweil’s quasi-religious presentation style (not to mention judicious hand-waving and fact-fudging) that makes it the easiest to attack. [image by null0]

Anissimov finds himself closer to the “Event Horizon” and “Intelligence Explosion” schools:

These other schools point to the unique transformative power of superintelligence as a discrete technological milestone. Is technology speeding up, slowing down, staying still, or moving sideways? Doesn’t matter — the creation of superintelligence would have a huge impact no matter what the rest of technology is doing. To me, the relevance of a given technology to humanity’s future is largely determined by whether it contributes to the creation of superintelligence or not, and if so, whether it contributes to the creation of friendly or unfriendly superintelligence. The rest is just decoration.

That may not actually sound any more reassuring than Kurzweil’s exponential curve of change to many people – if not even less so. And with good reason:

That’s the thing about superintelligence that so offends human sensibilities. Its creation would mean that we’re no longer the primary force of influence on our world or light cone. Its funny how people then make the non sequitur that our lack of primacy would immediately mean our subjugation or general unhappiness. This comes from thousands of years of cultural experience of tribes constantly killing each other. Fortunately, superintelligence need not have the crude Darwinian psychology of every organism crafted by biological evolution, so such assumptions do not hold in all cases. Of course, superintelligence might be created with just that selfish psychology, in which case we would likely be destroyed before we even knew what happened. Prolonged wars between beings of qualitatively different processing speeds and intelligence levels is science fiction, not reality.

Superintelligence sounds like a bit of a gamble, then… which is exactly why its proponents suggest we need to study it more vigorously so that – when the inevitable happens – we’re not annihilated by our own creations.

But what’s of relevance here is the sudden attempts by a number of transhumanist and Singularitarian thinkers to distance themselves from Kurzweil’s PT Barnum schtick in search of greater respectability for their less sensationalist ideas. Philosophical schisms have a historical tendency to become messy; while I don’t expect this one to result in bloodshed (although one can’t completely rule out some Strossian techno-jihad played out in near-Earth Orbit a hundred years hence), I think we can expect some heated debate in months to come.