Oct 14 2011

Is Stiff Academia Killing Mental Evolution?


One thing I have noticed about the Transhumanist community is that there is a division between the academic crowd and the consciousness expansion crowd. Previous Transhumanist movements have battled on idealistic grounds for the notion of what Transhumanism was really about. Was it the hard scientific outlook with the academic credentials and PowerPoints or was it the consciousness expansion outlook with the mind altering psychedelics and technological revolution? Was the hard academic current stopping the freethinking cyberpunk current from being viewed as Transhuman and was the freethinking cyberpunk current stopping the hard academic current from being taken seriously?

I used to say that the stiff academics were killing mental evolution and I completely sided with the freethinking cyberpunk current. Yet I have recently come to the realization that both currents of Transhumanism are equally important. As freethinking cyberpunks we need hard academics to build a sustainable movement or we will simply come off like a bunch of techno-hippies.

I do, however, wish to address a part of academia that has been upsetting me for a while. I’m talking about the anti-philosophy part which states that philosophy is irrelevant to Transhumanism because we now have technology. The “why have discussions on philosophy when we can build new machines?” people. They are the ones who are killing mental evolution because they dismiss philosophical discourse on the future as all talk and no action.

The last time I checked it appeared that philosophical discourse was required for action to exist in the first place. Would we be able to build new machines if we didn’t philosophize about technology? Why would we want to live in a society of robot builders if we couldn’t even theorize about what we were building? All talk and no action is a definite waste of time but all action and no talk is a cold society devoid of free thought and revolution. I feel that we need a mixture of both. We need the talk and we need the action. We need the techno-hippies who have just discovered LSD and Robert Anton Wilson to throw the raves and we need the MIT graduates to advance genetic research and throw the conferences. We need each and every person in this movement.

Transhumanism has split off into a bunch of different currents and in 2011 this has reached a level so meta-meta-meta that there are at least 30 different groups on Facebook for different currents of Transhumanism. Recently someone in the Singularity Network group asked a question to the effect of “why was I just added to 15 different Transhumanist groups?” Can we blame the hard academic elite or can we blame the petty infighting that every movement inevitably has to deal with? Should we be placing any blame in the first place or should we be embracing the splintering off of so many new movements?

In the end, I believe every MIT graduate was once a freethinking cyberpunk or — at the very least — they embraced these ideals in their youth. I also believe that every freethinking cyberpunk would benefit from a more academic education so they could turn their visions into realities via technology and scientific theory. The only thing killing mental evolution is the idea that ideas are no longer important because … “Hey! Check out those robots over there… and stop talking.”

Oct 04 2011

Posthuman Godhead

Consider transhumanism as a monotheistic religion.  Religion? Transhumanists share a belief in a coming eschatological event — their belief transcends rational conjecture about the advance of technology and posits wild and miraculous progress.  It does so without bothering to worry with the “mere engineering” that would lead to such radical transformations in individuals or societies.  There is an abiding faith that whatever needs to happen to fulfill the singular moment of deliberate evolutionary uplift will happen… somehow.

Monotheistic?  The Singularity is a singular event — but it isn’t simply an event or a phenomenon.  It is a meta-phenomenon in that it is imagined to be able to generate any number of future (post-singular) phenomena.  This is usually imagined to be done by the active will and imagination of the posthuman Singulatarian consciousness.

When we are all “postsingular”, we will also be post-plural: identities will flow into and out of each other with such speed and vicissitude that it will no longer be useful (or possible) to talk about individual beings.  All will be a swirl — a very powerful (organized?) storm of reality-bending consciousness.

That thing — that postsingularity storm — is what we may say transhumanism believes in and aspires to. That storm is effectively all-powerful and arguably supranatural in its ability to rewrite nature according to its own needs, desires, or whims.

Accepting transhumanism as a monotheistic religion gives us room to consider what any nascent priesthood or brahmin class will gain in the run up to Singularity.  Obviously, other parallels may follow: is it a pantheistic or panentheistic monotheism?  What rites are beginning to accrete around the discussion of the postsingular “storm”?  A whole theology of the Singularity may be emerging.

Arguments against this view of transhumanism (as a religion) may be many, varied, and compelling.  But so long as it is possible to see the urge toward posthuman culture as an emotionally driven system of belief, consideration and criticism of the movement may be possible in previously underexplored dimensions.

So to transhumanist friends: how do your original operating systems (or belief systems) affect the type of Singularity that’s “destined” to emerge?

Do you really want to live in the kind of paradise you’re building?

Aug 31 2011

Transhumanism Against Scarcity: A Conversation with AnonymousSquared

“… why should anyone want to participate in an infinite unending marketplace.  What kind of human being sees that as the ultimate goal?


A couple of weeks ago, I was contacted by AnonymousSquared — a fellow who had read somewhere that I was thinking about writing a book titled “Steal This Singularity.“ (I’ll be thinking about it for a long time.)  He sent me a copy of his book-in-progress, which he calls “Transhumanism Against Scarcity.”   And while the book needs some work, it had some interesting ideas.  So I decided to have an email conversation with him.  Here goes more-than-nothing…

RU SIRIUS:  This discussion about ending human scarcity has a long and deep history.  Technologically, we may be moving in the right direction… towards molecular machines, desktop manufacturing, the digitization of everything.  But you say in your book that we’re headed in the wrong direction.

ANONYMOUSSQUARED:  I see two problems.  One is that environmental problems may intervene.  I don’t know if I can do anything about that.  The other problem that I see is a strain of libertarian absolutism that is fairly prevalent inside transhumanist circles and that is having way too much impact on politics in the real world. Maybe I can have some impact on that in a small way.

I don’t really have a beef with libertarianism per se… as a soft concept, finding our way towards a world with a lot less government coercion seems like a good thing.  I think the problem comes when ideals collide with the real world.  And you’ll notice that much of what I’ve written is focused on the world today, not on the future.  I thought of calling it Transhumanism Against Austerity, which is the way that global monetary policy is reintroducing scarcity into parts of the world where it had been all but eliminated.  It should be obvious to futurists that this is the wrong direction, if for no other reason than to avoid massive riots and an uprising of neoluddism.

We’re already very deep into a wildly technological time.  People notice stuff like artificial biology, bulletproof skin, the stuff that kids take for granted on their cell phones… people running around talking about robots overachieving us.  This is not lost on ordinary people.  And they’re looking around unemployed and with their homes “underwater” and medical costs rising and bankers getting free money from the government while they’re being asked to tighten their belts and they’re saying to themselves, “So this is what the techno-world is!”  Some of the people in this transhuman community have no idea what’s going to hit them.

RU:  The argument, of course, goes that the best way to end scarcity is to unleash an unfettered market.

AS: Sure, and you can’t argue with someone who is absolutely convinced that is the case.  It could conceivably even make sense at some point in the future, where a sort of tipping point is reached with nanotechnology and even the garbage pickers will be rich.  But it’s more likely that we need to think about how to get wealth to a majority of people who are economically superfluous… or we abandon them to penniless suffering.

The two main forces that are making most people economically superfluous are roboticization and globalization.  And of nearly equal importance is disintermediation of the intellectual creative classes.  Certainly corporations and business still need workers and people still want services and apps, but there’s a limit to all that.

The obvious one that everybody thinks about is that, with globalization, most types of work can be farmed out to places where there’s cheap labor, lower expectations and lower expenses.  Less obvious is that — with a globalized market, individuals are also superfluous as consumers.  So it’s the death of Keynsean economics, in the sense that global corporations and financing concerns feel no pain when Americans or Greeks stop spending.  And that’s because the possible market is so large that even with economies in recession, they’ve got more consumers than they’ve ever had before.

RU:  A few years ago, I was at a Singularity Conference and somebody whose name I forget gave a talk about robotization.  And he suggested that when robots can do everything that humans do faster, better and more efficiently, then we’ll have to give people what they need gratis.  And about a third of the audience booed him.  It was the only time I’ve ever heard a speaker get booed at one of these conferences.

AS:  Those people are against the future.  That’s the irony.  They’re trying to force ideas from the past onto the future and they’re doing damage to the present in the process.

I understand that in the 1970s, there was a lot of talk even among many libertarians that there was going to be this cybernetic age soon and people’s jobs would be replaced by machines… and how are we going to deal with that?  And they talked about the least bureaucratic ways to let people enjoy their lives after the machines take over… ideas like a reverse income tax or running some large centralized enterprise and giving everybody free stock.  It was just assumed that we wouldn’t leave people out in the cold when they were no longer necessary.  After all, as a society we wouldn’t be any poorer because the machine rather than the human is producing.  This seems so fundamentally human and obvious.  I think there’s been a massive dehumanization since then.

RU:  I lived through the seventies and they were pretty miserable.  Alienation with the internet is definitely less isolating and boring than alienation with it.  

Anyway, the popular argument with the idea that you have to help people who were replaced by technology is that we’ve learned that new technologies create new economic opportunities and new jobs and so forth.  I think it’s a partial truth that deteriorates as we go deeper into the postindustrial era, but it’s an argument that’s out there.

AS:  Well, we could go into the conventional arguments about actual income stagnation and insecurity but it’s all been said before and everybody has their arguments ready.  But I think anybody would have to admit that it’s already a weird economy. A big chunk of the market economy exist solely on the basis of the eventual expectation of advertising. How perverse is that… when you actually examine it? Where it really falls apart is when you have a billion busy little small entrepreneurs hustling some product.  Who has the attention and the need for what they have to offer… assuming it hasn’t already been hacked and distributed free anyway?  And why should anyone want to participate in an infinite unending marketplace.  What kind of human being sees that as the ultimate goal?

RU: Is there any reason to be optimistic?

AS:  Sure.  There are plenty of people with all types of ideological influences including libertarianism who are truly humanistic and want only to solve big problems ranging from scarcity to death. I want to ask them to be against austerity policies now. When you’re inviting people to be bold and excited and transhuman about the very extreme technological changes that are taking place, maybe it would be smart not to yank the floor out from underneath them at the same time.

Aug 03 2011

Jason Louv’s Queen Valentine: A Romance in Two Worlds

Jason Louv’s new novel Queen Valentine is a hallucinatory trip through the supernatural underbelly of New York City… as one reviewer put it, “Like Alice in Wonderland if Lewis Carroll had overdosed on the opposite of Prozac. A twisted, dark, comical take on the origins of our hopes, dreams and nightmares.”

Louv is best known for his three previously published three anthologies on consciousness studies, Generation Hex (which Grant Morrison called “Your invitation to the party that might just bring the house down”), Ultraculture and Thee Psychick Bible with Genesis Breyer P-Orridge, and although the new book is a foray into fiction, it continues his themes of consciousness expansion, posthumanity, magic and the hidden occult side of the world. I caught up with him briefly by e-mail to discuss the new book.

RAY TESLA: So what is Queen Valentine?

JASON LOUV: It’s a novel exposing the supernatural underworld beneath New York, as seen through the eyes of a young woman who’s lost her soul working in advertising, and ends up stumbling into the world beneath. It’s a bit like Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s The Coming Race mashed up with “Mad Men.”

RT: Can you say more?

JL: Well, the premise is essentially this. In the middle ages, the people of Europe took it for granted that non-human beings — often called the Sidhe or the faery folk — were as real as humans, and regularly trafficked with the human world. Just like “modern” people sometimes claim to see UFOs or to have been abducted by aliens, in the middle ages people often claimed to have happened upon secret Sidhe kingdoms, to have been abducted to faerie land, or to have had their children swapped for faerie babies. That’s where we get a lot of European mythology from. And then we stop hearing about them as soon as the Inquisition and then the Age of Reason come in.

So the question is, what happened to those beings? And the answer in the book is, well, they did what lots of displaced people do. They emigrated to New York, or the settlement that became New York. And they’ve been living in secret catacombs and warrens underneath the city ever since, in their own shadow version of the city and shadow economy — along with their evil half, the Unseelie, who are like creatures created by pure nightmare energy. And after four hundred years, the Unseelie are tired of hiding, and they want to make a bid to subjugate the human side of the city.

RT: What were your main inspirations writing this?

JL: Having been involved both in advertising world and the supernatural underworld of New York.

RT: You’ve previously written about consciousness expansion and magic (Generation Hex, Ultraculture, Thee Psychick Bible) and about the transforming effects of technology on the soul. Do you see this as a continuation or a departure from those topics? Why the switch to fiction?

JL: Definitely a continuation. There’s only so much truth you can express about the hidden corners of reality in non-fiction or essay form before people start wondering if you’re making it up. The threshold is very low. With fiction, hopefully I can put it all in there and instead of that nagging voice in your head while you’re reading it being “I wonder if he made this up,” it might be “I wonder if any of this is actually true?”

RT: So are you saying there’s actually coded occult information in Queen Valentine?

JL: No. Certainly not.

RT: You’ve also written about transhumanism and posthumanity. Does that tie in with the book?

JL: In a way. The book is in many ways a critique of transhumanism from the perspective of the original guardians of the earth, the nature spirits who’ve had to adapt to our technological progress and find a way to live in the cracks like any diaspora culture. A lot of the tension in the book revolves around the different responses from different factions of the Sidhe to the direction humanity is going. There’s also a lot of satire of the Faustian need for physical augmentation. I don’t want to give too much away, but the crux of what’s being discussed is whether humanity will be allowed to manifest the kind of nightmare future that it seems to be hellbent on creating.

RT: Does that mean you have an essentially pessimistic view of the future?

JL: Not really. I’m a great believer in posthumanity. But there’s certainly a dark road that I see people heading down that I think they shouldn’t. I think if we keep pushing on things like genetically modified crops and voluntary surveillance social media there’s a good chance we could end up living a real shit of a situation. I’m disturbed on a daily basis by the fact that we’ve essentially allowed things like Facebook to turn our interpersonal space into a strip mall. And I see one tendency of humanity to become more and more soulless, more and more surrendered to mechanization and regimentation. But luckily we still have things like science fiction to create and advertise better futures. By any imaginary means necessary!

RT: What’s next for you?

JL: I’m done plotting the next book and on into writing it. I’d really like to get into wider media to educate more young minds. That’s what it’s about! I’d like to write some comics if they’ll let me at them.

Jul 20 2011

I Predict That My Predictions Will Be Proven Wrong

“Personally, when I hear someone who is generally upbeat being pessimistic, it makes me optimistic…”


Tonight, the audio podcast “Future Forward” will be uploading an interview with myself, Sonia Arrison and George Dvorsky.  Before doing the interview (twice, but that’s a whole other story) we were informed that we would be talking about likely human enhancements 25 years from now.

This got me thinking about the nature of predicting the future and the transhumanist project.  I began to wonder how accurate the predictions made by “futurists” 25 years ago would look today.  My unscientific sense (based on my admittedly faulty memory) is that most predictions made 25 years ago were probably either way too optimistic or way too pessimistic.  I can remember, for instance, when the very existence of genetic engineering seemed to hold a near future promise of mega-cures for the worst diseases.  Now we’ve got the whole genome and curing — for example — cancer is still a work in progress.  Thirty years ago, the future was in space colonization.  By 1986, disillusionment had already set it. (I suppose a study of futurist predictions made in 1986 is in order.  Meanwhile, Singularity Hub provides these predictions of the future from the 1960s.  The results are mixed… and amusing.)

In terms of people being too optimistic or pessimistic, the latter half of the 20th Century was filled with promises of utopia and/or apocalypse.  Indeed, the design theorist Buckminster Fuller made the case that it was going to be one or the other.  And yet, we seem instead to have muddled through, at least so far.

So on the one hand, I fear that those of us whose hopes have been raised by the transhumanist project may find ourselves 25 years hence still awaiting hyperlongevity, molecular engines of creation, really smart bots and so on.

On the other hand, assuming the technological ducks are in a row and astounding technological developments already in progress should be bearing magnificent fruit within 25 years, I find myself — in this age of massive oil spill disasters, crazy weather, announcements that the oceans are dying, and natural disasters rubbing up against nuclear power plants — wondering whether we will arrive at 2036 intact and without having encountered major disruption.

On the whole, the potential for environmental havoc that is disruptive enough to cancel the future seems to be a taboo subject in most transhumanist circles.  Indeed, Ray Kurzweil claims to have charted how two world wars and an economic depression didn’t seriously impede exponential growth in information processing power.  But the death of the oceans?

Of course, many transhumanist advocates will rise up to defend the memeplex by arguing that the science behind those predictions is all wrong.  People choose the science they want to believe and find the arguments — and even the statistics — to support their views. Of course, they could be right.

Am I becoming a pessimist?  I hope not.  I prefer to be agnostic on the optimism v. pessimism question.  Some otherwise hardcore rationalists argue that we should be optimistic because it generates positive action.  It’s also been shown that people with strong spiritual faith tend to be healthier and to live longer. (I’m just sayin’). Personally, when I hear someone who is generally upbeat being pessimistic, it makes me optimistic, because it tells me that this person is trying to deal honestly with things as they are rather than as they want them to be.

Meanwhile, on the Fast Forward show, I tossed out a brief challenge to the whole predicting thing and then let myself get carried along in the “what if” scenarios.  Ok, I’ll admit it. If nothing else, speculating can be fun.