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May 31 2012

When I Called Charlie Stross A Dirty Name… “Transhumanist”

By R.U. Sirius


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I have lately tried to stay away from calling myself a transhumanist largely because I’m intimate with the unpredictable and indescribable iconoclasm that often shakes my brain and therefore resist labels.  But I also like to steer clear because people who don’t self-identify with the label have a lot of misconceptions about who “the transhumanists” are.  And every now and then, a fairly predictable group of thinkers… some of them friends of mine…  beat the straw out of their conception of transhumanism.  They give it a damn good thrashing.

Now, if these folks were criticizing some tendencies within some prominent self-identified transhumanist circles, they’d often be on target.  But what we get from them is something akin to some people attacking atheism in the 1960s based on the prominence of Madeline O’Hair and Ayn Rand.  In fact, what we have is more akin to a bunch of athiests attacking athiesm on that basis.

This is from my 2009 interview with Charlie Stross for  H+ magazine which I titled “The Reluctant Transhumanist”

H+: What do you think about transhumanism and singularitarianism as movements? Are these goals to be attained or just a likely projection of technologies into the future that we should be aware of?

CS: My friend Ken MacLeod has a rather disparaging term for the singularity; he calls it “The Rapture of the Nerds.”

This isn’t a comment on the probability of such an event occurring, per se, so much as it’s a social observation on the type of personality that’s attracted to the idea of leaving the decay-prone meatbody behind and uploading itself into AI heaven. There’s a visible correlation between this sort of personality and the more socially dysfunctional libertarians (who are also convinced that if the brakes on capitalism were off, they’d somehow be teleported to the apex of the food chain in place of the current top predators).

Both ideologies are symptomatic of a desire for simple but revolutionary solutions to the perceived problems of the present, without any clear understanding of what those problems are or where they arise from. (In the case of the libertarians, they mostly don’t understand how the current system came about, or that the reason we don’t live in a minarchist night-watchman state is because it was tried in the 18th and 19th centuries, and it didn’t work very well. In the case of the AI-rapture folks, I suspect there’s a big dose of Christian millennialism (of the sort that struck around 990–1010 A.D., and again in the past decade) that, because they’re predisposed to a less superstitious, more technophillic world-view, they displace onto a quasiscientific rationale.

Mind uploading would be a fine thing, but I’m not convinced what you’d get at the end of it would be even remotely human. (Me, I’d rather deal with the defects of the meat machine by fixing them — I’d be very happy with cures for senescence, cardiovascular disease, cancer, and the other nasty failure modes to which we are prone, with limb regeneration and tissue engineering and unlimited life prolongation.) But then, I’m growing old and cynical. Back in the eighties I wanted to be the first guy on my block to get a direct-interface jack in his skull. These days, I’d rather have a firewall.

H+: You said “I’d be very happy with cures for senescence, cardiovascular disease, cancer, and the other nasty failure modes to which we are prone, with limb regeneration, and tissue engineering and unlimited life prolongation.” It seems to me that this still puts you in the Transhumanist camp. Would you agree?

CS: To the extent that I don’t believe the human condition is immutable and constant then yes, I’m a Transhumanist. If the human condition was immutable, we’d still be living in caves. (And I have a very dim view of those ideologies and religions that insist that we shouldn’t seek to improve our lot.)

Full article here

 

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  • By Giulio Prisco, June 1, 2012 @ 12:45 am

    As usual, R.U. Sirius analysis is accurate.

    Charlie Stross may have political opinions similar to those of Dale Carrico, and agree with Carrico’s critique of transhumanism to some extent, but he doesn’t make a fool of himself by pretending to consider transhumanist aspirations scientifically impossible. He knows better.

    Carrico’s “arguments” boil down to “You are a filthy Robot Cultist, so you are not qualified to have opinions on serious political issues.” These are the same “arguments” often used by those homophobes who say “You are a filthy gay, so you are not qualified to have opinions on serious political issues,” so they are quite surreal when they come from a gay rights activist like Carrico.

  • By Barkeron, June 2, 2012 @ 12:47 pm

    And as usual, the fanboys of the Robot Cult use the classical tactic of twisting words to undermine their critics’ words.

    May I point out Mr. Stross merely admitted that he would find it neat if there were cures for cancer and Angina pectoris (and I ask, who does not?), but said nothing whatsoever about their plausibility and viability?

    In fact, had you made your homework you would’ve quickly seen he is well aware “cancer” is an umbrella term for a variety of tissue aberrations that make silver bullet treatments very unlikely.

    And I think here lies one of the main problems of you guys: you mistake “wow, wouldn’t it be way cool if magic were, like, really real?!” with progressive thinking.

    Mr. Stross evinced an interest in the low- to lowest-level – and therefore more grounded in reality – ambitions of the self-described “transhumanists”, namely tissue engineering and related projects, but at the same time expressed scepsis towards the mid- to high-level – and therefore defining – ones, namely the eternal vaporware of magic “can-anything” nanorobotics, demigod cyborgs or apotheosis into AI God Dictators (and, considering the realities of engineering and the laws of nature, rightly so).

    To say he’s a “reluctant transhumanist” is therefore highly misleading, seeing as his statement of being a “transhumanist” is practically meaningless because he rejects the defining elements of the cult.

    Make no mistake, I myself think science and technology are some of humankind’s greatest tools and should be accordingly promoted, but your crypto-religious pie in the sky delusions poison technodevelopmental discourse and so can only harm humanity.

    As for your spurious (and frankly quite disgusting) comparison between Mr. Carrico and homophobes, I believe I should let refer to his response.

    http://amormundi.blogspot.de/2012/06/criticizing-transhumanism-is-hate-crime.html

  • By maximo ramos, June 2, 2012 @ 4:59 pm

    Well said, Barkeron! And _many_ prominent “transhmanists” are in fact barely closeted occultists and/or have occultism in their recent backgrounds. Occultism and “transhumanism” have a deeply incestuous relationship that is barely beneath the robot worship veneer.

  • By Eudoxia, June 3, 2012 @ 12:37 pm

    What does ‘crypto-religious’ even mean? (Genuinely curious)

    Mother of Christ, you guys, not everyone who believes uploading is plausible is an occultist member of the Turing Church!

  • By Barkeron, June 3, 2012 @ 8:27 pm

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Crypto-politics

    Just replace all instances of “political ideology” with “religious dogma”.

    Most of the so-called “transhumanists” sound not much different from Scientologists, just like most mind-uploadians sound like they’re talking about the technological version of ascension to (bit)heaven. Did it ever occur to you that in absence of magic, brain-eating Moravec-style nanopixies the brain emulation would just be a copy, but not you? Or that the generated consciousness would turn out to be pretty abhuman given the fully different new “body”?

  • By maximo ramos, June 4, 2012 @ 4:04 am

    They make this and other fundamental errors as they tend to have zero familiarity with phenomenology and other philosophical basics.

  • By Eudoxia, June 4, 2012 @ 3:56 pm

    >Just replace all instances of “political ideology” with “religious dogma”.

    Got it, thanks. I started to notice some associations between occultism a while ago reading this blog post by Richard Jones on how Feynman’s original talk on Nanotechnology had ultimately been influenced by some occultist guy. Then I noticed that Rachel Haywire person, a known occultist-or-whatever along with the whole ‘Extreme Futurist Festival’ thing, along with a guy from a cryonics organization with a background in Satanism.

    The least conspiracy-theory sounding excuse I can think of is that the schizoid are often drawn to paranormal sort of movements, and there’s a big overlap between SPD and the stereotype of the aspie transhumanist who wears a Star Trek shirt and goes to comic con.

    >Most of the so-called “transhumanists” sound not much different from Scientologists, just like most mind-uploadians sound like they’re talking about the technological version of ascension to (bit)heaven.

    I am familiar with the type: AI written by someone else will show up at my doorstep with immortality in one hand and an ultramicrotome in the other, ready to upload me to cyber heaven where I’ll live in a virtual castle in the sky getting blown by a harem of floating angel robot girlfriends.

    In any case, I am personally interesting in mind uploading, though I rarely call it that. Computers are pretty useful, that’s why they’re called “Universal Computers”. I think of a brain emulation in a computer as the ‘ultimate’ or at least the most flexible framework for human enhancement. I don’t believe in uploading as the means to ‘be safe on the net’ or achieve ‘digital immortality’, because frankly computers are and will in most likelihood continue to be too unreliable.

    >Did it ever occur to you that in absence of magic, brain-eating Moravec-style nanopixies the brain emulation would just be a copy, but not you?

    As for the Moravec uploading, the Whole Brain Emulation Roadmap [ http://www.fhi.ox.ac.uk/reports/2008-3.pdf ] describes real-life scanning techniques like microtome scanning, using an ATLUM or KESM to scan large portions of tissue, discuss problems, etc. Moravec’s idea is only mentioned because of its historical ‘significance’, nobody can really take it seriously. I mean, it’s almost some kind of caricature of what transhumanists believe WBE will be like.

    As for the nano pixies, while I think Drexler’s idea of molecular nanotechnology is interesting and there’s definitely something to it, I think there’s a sort of missing link between a paper showing the feasibility of mechanosynthesis on this or those conditions and blueprints of magic diamond robots that float around your veins and give you superhuman stamina.

    And as for the copy thing, I don’t really care. It’s not that I ignore it, no amount of philosophical tap dancing is going to get you around the fact that a copy is a copy. If I was up for uploading and the copies of previous ‘uploads’ were hugely innacurate then I might bail out, but a fair approximation is an okay loss since I think uploading is a pretty good framework for human enhancement.

    >Or that the generated consciousness would turn out to be pretty abhuman given the fully different new “body”?

    Well, transhumanism is about becoming more than human. In that process you either become more or less than human, and both of those are abhuman.

  • By Eudoxia, June 4, 2012 @ 3:59 pm

    In short, there are a bunch of transhumanists out there working on making these ideas happen, and for every one of those there are ten people blogging about how cool 3D printing is along with the “soon to be upon us” Singularity is and promoting all sorts of bullshit that will never get anything done but will make them feel like they’ve contributed to the movement.

    It’s generally those types of people who are most stubborn in their techno-eschatology where they’re all whisked away to nerdtopia.

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