May 31 2012

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


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


Jun 06 2011

All Watched Over By Machines & Ayn Rand’s Face


The opening episode of All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace — the BBC documentary that’s been generating big buzz since its debut on BBC 2 in late March — is a wildly enjoyable and coruscating, but nevertheless flawed dissection of the connections between Randian Actualism, the rise of technoculture, and the accelerating boom/bust cycles of global market capitalism. Adam Curtis (he’s huge in England) is a smart and skilled filmmaker working in the very contemporary rapid fire, cut-up mode.

Nevertheless, I fear that I must quibble with the narrative a bit. Episode One paints (or tars) with broad strokes. Clever as hell… but this is a sketchy and surprisingly simplistic narrative presented as airtight history. It’s also a very European take on U.S. technoculture (“I see libertarian people!”).

The title, of course, comes from a famous poem by hippie writer Richard Brautigan envisioning a cybernetic/ecological/post-scarcity utopia. As I sat down to view it, I expected the usual scalding critique of the illusions of the ‘90s cyber/counterculture and the hippie technotopians who made it all go down, playing right into the hands (as critics would have it, and they are at least partially correct) of the global financial elite.

Imagine my surprise then as I viddied the opening: “It’s a strange story and it begins with a strange woman in the 1950s in New York.” Cut to Mike Wallace interviewing Ayn Rand.

“Well, no.” thought I. “It all started with Lee Felsenstein, veteran of the ultraleft countercultural underground newspaper, Berkeley Barb, who organized the Homebrew Computer Club for computer hobbyists in Berkeley, California in the mid-1970s. (Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak were amongst the many attendees who created the “personal computer revolution.”)

But I quickly realized that Curtis was telling an entirely different story — one that is largely valid (in aforementioned broad strokes) — about what happened when boundary defying technologies with global implications collided with market capitalism under the, at best, premature assumption that these combined forces would become a smooth functioning cybernetic (self regulating) system that would never crash.

Ayn Rand’s face, slightly twitchy and sad-eyed, recurs throughout the opening episode, looming over the proceedings, the central conceit being that Rand’s extreme philosophy has guided our political economy for several decades. This is a partial truth. The real story is, of course, more complicated and much messier, having less to do with ideology put into practice than natural opportunism responding to a set of circumstances. I mean, does anybody really believe that we wouldn’t be where we are now technologically without Ayn Rand? And granting that; does anybody believe, given the globalizing nature of that technology, that average Westerners wouldn’t have fallen into competition with people in developing countries and that the leaders of nations and states wouldn’t be reduced to offering tax breaks (If not blow jobs) to corporations if they’ll only bring their business to town (or keep it there)?

A complimentary narrative is interweaved into the episode involving the Clinton Administration, as we follow the Democratic President as he gets swallowed whole by Robert Rubin’s market ideology and Monica Lewinsky and we witness the exciting boom and then bust of the nineties, repeated with less boom and worse bust in the 2000s.

This, then, is not so much the story of the rise of digital enthusiasm as it is the story of the rise of speculative casino global capitalism contextualized by digital enthusiasm.

I would also point out — in fairness to my libertarian friends — that the ethic of the species of Silicon Valley libertarian entrepreneurs who play a starring role in the episode (they’re not as utterly ubiquitous as the documentarian implies) is entrepreneurial capitalism. This ethic honors using capital to actually do something, as opposed to simply making money from money by playing tricky games. Not that there was a great deal of resistance to the speculative booms in those quarters, but you will find some of these entrepreneurs sharpening those distinctions today as they note the damage done.

All these quibbles aside, All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace looks to be a promising examination of technological exuberance over the last several decades. By the end of it all, I may be worshipping at Adam Curtis’s feet.

You can find the first two episodes now on YouTube and here’s hoping it makes it to BBC America.