Transhumanism has already won

Paul Raven @ 01-03-2011

So claims Nikola “Socrates” Danaylov of, 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. 🙂

Stop press: arbitrary marketing category finally overlaps more respected arbitrary marketing category

Paul Raven @ 03-09-2010

I think we’ll end up looking back and deciding that the favourite critical riff of 2010 in science fiction is the one that goes “hey, look, we’ve won!” Here’s some highlights from a lengthy solo in the same key from io9‘s Charlie Jane Anders:

… the thing that jumps out at you when you read this new wave of lit authors doing SF is how aware they are of the genre. You’re not dealing with Philip Roth writing alternate history without ever having read any of it, or Margaret Atwood denying her SF is SF — Moody is, to some extent, paying tribute to science fiction. Charles Yu’s book is clearly about science fiction. Cronin’s book attempts to channel the style of Steven King as much as possible. Writing a science fictional book without acknowledging the genre would be missing the point for these authors — they’re writing about genre as much as they are about science fictional ideas.


Reading through a stack of these recent literary books, you’re left with the feeling that these two themes — technological dislocation and imperial collapse — are resonating in the consciousness of the book-reading classes, and any author who manages to exploit these themes in an evocative way will make it big. There’s a hunger for heartfelt, even disheartening, books set in the near future, and science fiction authors should be doing more deeply personal near-future stories if they want to catch this wave.

I’ve found myself becoming more and more frustrated with this particular meme, for reasons I’m not entirely able to articulate. I think it’s the underlying sense of patting-ourselves-on-the-back, a subtext of vindication that says “hey, we were right all along, and now everyone else is finally catching up and will have to acknowledge the fact that we were out in front before anyone else”. It’s the last part of that subtext that’s the problem, even if you argue (as I think you can, with a limited degree of success) that the first part is true. Yeah, sure, OK: the ivory tower denizens have looked down upon the works of the barbarians, and found them novel (pun intended). This is not a new thing, really. It’s cultural colonialism at best, and we all know how that works out in the long run: “literature” will use “science fiction” for as long as it’s expedient or interesting, no longer, and there’ll be no gratitude beyond that extended by the writers who’ve borrowed liberally from the toolshed. It’s not about genres, it’s about the stories that speak to readers and writers alike, which in turn is a function of the Zeitgeist – something that, by definition, doesn’t do a whole bunch of sitting still.

Interestingly, Anders ends this triumphalist piece by deliberately undermining the very constructs whose triumphs it seems to celebrate:

So it’s finally come true — the literature of the future has become the future of literature. Our collective literary consciousness is crying out for near-future books that are deeply personal, obsessed with technological change, and viciously satirical. We could just be seeing the first wave of a whole new tide of science fiction novels, with authors from both the artificially constructed “science fiction” and “literary” genres making equally wonderful contributions. Let’s hope so, anyway.

If there’s anything for science fiction fandom (and indeed for everyone else) to celebrate, it’s that there are more good books to read. Much as with the YA craze of the preceding few years, I’m really getting tired about arguing over which particular shelves those good books should or shouldn’t be found on… and the utopian “one day soon, there will be only one set of shelves!” riff just doesn’t wash with someone who’s worked in a public library, I’m afraid.

Maybe it’s to do with the geek psychology of feeling like underdogs or outsiders that causes it, but I worry that science fiction’s thirst for validation from those who once dismissed it out of hand is a sign that, rather than leading the literati into the near-future, it’s being charmed out of the driver’s seat by them. Are we in fact celebrating our own sunset, here?

Read blogs, scan Twitter, predict the future… profit?

Paul Raven @ 23-06-2010

So much for the nay-sayers, blog critics and Twitter h8rz: economic researchers reckon that keeping a weather eye on the internet Zeitgeist by scanning blogs and tweets for keywords could help predict stock price changes and other market behaviours!

Which is all very nice, so far as it goes. But given the events of the last few years, I think I’d rather hear stories about economists trying to discover how the global economy actually works as a system by analysing historical data, rather than trying to guess what it’ll do tomorrow by reading the internet’s tea leaves…

… yeah, I know, wishful thinking. Scratch a futurist, reveal an embittered utopian optimist. *shrug*