Sep 25 2012

Caricatures Of The Satirists: A Review Of “Rapture Of The Nerds” By Cory Doctorow & Charlie Stross


I’m not a singularitarian, but I am a transhumanist which is close enough for… well, probably for Charlie Stross, who, on occasion, seems to rise up to smite the (defunct) extropians on his blog.  But more than anything else, I’m a man who loves satire.  Satire… ridicule… mockery.  Humans  incite it; every last one of us.  And the closer to home the better.  So, you see, I really wanted Rapture of the Nerds to slap me upside the head and then slap those other guys — those silly singularitarians — even twice as hard.

There’s this thing that happens to me when I read Cory Doctorow’s novels, of which I’ve read a handful.  At the beginning, I find myself thinking, “this is clever, and there are more au courant nerd tropes being dropped than panties at a campus kegger, but is it merely clever?”  And then, somewhere towards the middle of the book, I’m feeling more like,  “Wow. This is really clever and amusing!”… and I stop worrying about whether it’s going deep or not.  And then, by the end, it’s either surprised me by really getting under my skin; or it hasn’t, and it was just pretty damn amusing.  Which is OK. (I’ve only read two Stross novels, so I’ll resist the urge to characterize.)

Rapture of the Nerds is an entertaining romp that ends up in the mere “pretty damn amusing” category.   Its high concept has already been expertly condensed by Mike Godwin in a review for Reason’s Hit and Run, so I’ll spare myself some needless labor and quote from that:

Rapture…is premised on the notion that somewhere around the middle of this century, a “technological singularity” will have occurred, enabling most people on earth to upload themselves to “the cloud,” which at this point is a space-based fog of interconnected molecular computing machines built out of the disassembled inner planets (except Earth) and optimized to capture solar energy. This uploading, which gives the novel its title, leaves roughly a billion people on Earth: the ones who choose not to upload (or at least not yet), and who are taking their time figuring out how to handle all the post-singularity technological advances in their terrestrial, body-bound world.

Some of that technology comes from uploaded minds in the cloud, which occasionally “spams Earth’s RF spectrum with cataclysmically disruptive technologies that emulsify whole industries, cultures, and spiritual systems.” To manage this problem of “godvomit,” the world government of the unraptured, unuploaded human beings forms “tech juries” to act as gatekeepers—in effect, to hold a trial for any given technology to decide whether the left-behind embodied humans can handle it.

Pretty amusing, huh?  But selfish me — I wanted more.  I wanted to be ravaged.  I wanted to find myself begging for mercy.  I wanted the greatest nerd satire ever. I wanted to LOL!   And all I got was an amused mind and the occasional sideways smirk.

Nonetheless, I commend you to get with this book.  It goes down easy. You won’t be bored and you’ll be wanting more.  Well, actually, you’ll be wishing Terry Southern was still around, but then, that’s life (and death) in pre-singularity times.   Meanwhile, there’s still an opening for the singularity satire that really puts the boot in.

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