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<nettime> Superlative futurology
pavlos hatzopoulos on Fri, 26 Jun 2009 20:41:19 +0200 (CEST)


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<nettime> Superlative futurology


by Dale Carrico

http://www.re-public.gr/en/?p=850  (special issue on transhumanism)


Where I see people discovering things and applying these discoveries to the
solution of shared problems (and usually creating new problems as they go
along) some self-described ?futurologists? seem to see instead the unfolding
of ?trends.? And among these are certain sub(cult)ures of futurological
fandom who go further still, who see in some such trends luminous paths to
idealized technodevelopmental outcomes in which they have invested highly
idiosyncratic hopes for personal transcendence.

Among these are folks who describe themselves as transhumanists,
singularitarians, techno-immortalists, extropians, and people with
optimistic expectations about nanoscale biomedicine and materials science
that one might with justice call nano-cornucopiasts. People who describe
themselves as ?transhumanists? throng all of these fandoms, in fact, but
their various overlappings and sectarian disputes bear witness to the usual
complexities of defensive marginal sub(cult)ures, especially the ones whose
members fancy themselves as possessors of the Keys to Human History. And so,
the first thing to say, I suppose, is that people mean different things by
?transhumanism,? both those who sympathize or even identify with it, and
those who disapprove or even ridicule what goes on it its name.


I use the term ?transhumanism? myself to deploy critiques of a complex of
overlapping techno-utopian technodevelopmental attitudes and programs, all
of which seem worrisomely anti-democratizing in their primary impact, in my
view:


[1] Transhumanism arises at the most general level out of a familiar strain
of Enlightenment thinking, amplified by industrialization and then
mass-mediation, that tends to a distorted, mechanistic reductionism
especially in matters of ethics and culture, as well as to what seems a
relentlessly un(der)critical technological determinism and technophilia, a
strain of thinking that has met with criticisms since it first emerged,
conspicuously from Romantic (and other) critics of Enlightenment but also
from different quarters within Enlightenment as well;


[2] It activates and exaggerates the familiar irrational passions of
instrumental rationality (dread of impotence and lust for omnipotence in
particular) especially in moments of disruptive technoscientific change like
our own;


[3] It substitutes for the pragmatism of a secular democratic vision of
collaborative problem solving (via consensus science) and consensual
self-determination (via the provision of general welfare and the maintenance
of the rule of law) instead a kind of faith-based initiative in which
technoscience is invested with hyper-individualized wish-fulfillment
fantasies of personal ?transcendence,? a vision of idealized outcomes and
personal aspirations for superlongevity, superintelligence, and
superabundance ? a vision that seems to me conceptually confused and
terribly deranging of sensible technodevelopmental deliberation at the worst
possible historical moment;


[4] It affirms a politics of biomedical ?enhancement? that in valuing a
parochial vision of ?perfectionism? over a consensual diversity of actually
wanted lifeways amounts all too often to straightforward eugenicism;


[5] It endorses elite-technocratic circumventions of stakeholder
deliberation in matters of technoscientific change (especially worrisome
given the tendency to eugenicism), usually justified with the familiar
anti-democratic rationale that ?accelerating change? is ill-understood by
everyday people affected by it (of course any characterization of
technodevelopment as monolithically accelerating is patently false, and
often, I think, is little more than a description of the catastrophic social
instability provoked by neoliberal financialization of the global
corporate-militarist economy as it is experienced by the relative
beneficiaries of that instability, that is to say, by the mostly white,
mostly male, mostly well-off, mostly well-educated, North Atlantic consumers
who identify in the main as ?transhumanists? in the first place);


[6] It is relying ever more conspicuously on discourses of Existential Risk
(in my view analogues to and exacerbations of all too familiar reactionary
?war-on-terror?-discourses) and preferentially geo-engineering responses
that conduce especially to the benefit of incumbency over democracy, the
corporate-military-industrial-broadcast complex over emerging insurgent
p2p-formations;


[7] It substitutes for the politics of democratizing social struggle amidst
a diversity of stakeholders over new and actually-emerging technoscientific
changes a dangerously inapt politics of sub(cult)ural identity, a movement
politics mobilizing personal and shared-group identification with particular
idealized (often incoherent) technodevelmental outcomes designated ?The
Future,? but substantiated through dis-identification with actually existing
planetary peers in all their diversity;


[8] It is constituted in its organizational substance by an archipelago of
inter-related ?think-tanks? and membership organizations supported by
enthusiastic fandoms, some of which are disturbingly similar to cults, with
all that this implies in the way of social alienation, manic PR and
hyperbolizing rhetoric to attract attention rather than contribute to sense,
criticisms misconstrued and attacked as defamation, and the whole banal
bestiary of authoritarian hierarchy from True Believers to would-be gurus
peddling pseudo-science.


These critiques are overlapping, but not seamlessly so, and one will find
transhumanists who are better or worse targets for them. I have been
offering up critiques of this sort of ?superlative futurology,? not to
mention arguing with some of its more dedicated and colorful exemplars,
transhumanists and singularitarians and techno-immortalists and so on, for
many years. For a chronological record of some of these skirmishes, I
recommend interested people turn to their anthologization in the Superlative
Summary <http://amormundi.blogspot.com/2007/10/superlative-summary.html>, or
this Condensed Critique of
Transhumanism.<http://amormundi.blogspot.com/2009/01/condensed-critique-of-transhumanism.html>


It is a great dilemma of superlative futurology, and transhumanism in
particular, that its proponents are invested in the idea that theirs is a
supremely scientific project, when none of the claims to which they can
assign themselves unique provenance have actually attracted scientific
consensus, while at once nobody needs to become a ?transhumanist,?
so-called, nor is there any reason at all to append the term ?transhumanist?
to any of the more mainstream technoscientific efforts and topics to which
transhumanists tend to turn when they seek to demonstrate their legitimacy.


There are many people concerned with the technical possibilities and
bioethical quandaries of emerging forms of genetic, prosthetic, and
cognitive medicine, but it is difficult to determine what transhumanists in
particular might contribute to these discussions, except should the talk
turn for some reason to genetic superhumanization and superlongevity
therapies, topics about which there is nothing like comparable urgency or
interest or agreement about plausibilities. There are many people concerned
with problems of the security and user-friendliness of software and
networks, but it is difficult to determine what transhumanists in particular
might contribute to these efforts, except should the talk turn for some
reason to the endlessly deferred dream of old fashioned artificial
intelligence or the prospects for a post-biological superintelligence,
topics about which there is nothing like comparable urgency or interest or
agreement about plausibilities. There are many scientists working at the
nanoscale, full of excitement and promise, but it is difficult to determine
what transhumanists in particular might contribute to their work, except
should the talk turn for some reason to the arrival of ?nanofactories,?
programmable poly-purpose self-replicating room-temperature devices to
transform cheap feedstock into nearly any desirable commodity with a
software recipe, topics about which there is nothing like comparable urgency
or interest or agreement about plausibilities.


While Superlative futurologists declare their discourses to be consummately
scientific, one finds that when talk turns Superlative one is caught up in
what feels like a confusion of science with science fiction, a hyperbolic,
promotional discourse (it is not a co-incidence that investors also handwave
about ?futures?). While there is plenty to compel the interest and concern
of citizens to current discoveries and techniques at the nanoscale, the
discourse of the nano-cornucopiasts is suffused with superlative evocations
of ?perfect control of matter? and the achievement of ?superabundance,?
superlative aspirations reminiscent of a great deal of digital utopianism
and virtuality discourse from the last decade, or which energized discourses
of automation and plastic in the post-war period before that, or drove the
alchemical project of turning lead into gold for ages before that.


The aspiration to superabundance seems an all too familiar eruption of the
infantile fantasy of a circumvention of the struggle with necessity, ananke:
in psychoanalytic terms a pining for a return to the plenitude represented
by the Pleasure Principle and renunciation of the exactions represented by
the Reality Principle. Or, in different terms, it is an anti-political
fantasy of a circumvention of the struggle to reconcile the ineradicable
diversity of the aspirations of our peers with whom we share the world
(since, where all are satisfied, no personally frustrating reconciliation is
necessary). In both of these aspects, it seems to me that this superlative
aspiration is an irrationalist repudiation of the heart of what
Enlightenment has typically seen as its substance ? the struggle for
autonomous adulthood (as against subjection by parental, priestly, or
otherwise unaccountable authorities) and for the consensualization, via
general welfare and the rule of law, of the disputatious public sphere. It
is worth noting that many superlative futurologists like to sell themselves
as exemplars of ?Enlightenment? while indulging in this infantilism,
anti-politicism, and irrationalism.


Neither am I inclined to describe as particularly scientific, Superlative
?Singularitarian? discourses that indulge the fantasy of either personally
achieving or at least of bearing witness to the arrival of post-biological
superintelligence, the Robot God Who, if ?Friendly,? solves all our problems
for us, or Who, if ?Unfriendly,? ends the world, in either case a
History-ending Singularity; nor the Superlative techno-immortalist
discourses that indulge the fantasy of personal immortality via the
?migration? of minds incarnated in brains into the altogether different
materiality of digital networks or robot-bodies.


Common to all these discourses is the divestment of a familiar phenomenon
(like personhood, intelligence, emancipation, or life) of the actual
organismic, social, historical, and biological substance and context in
which it has always hitherto been intelligible, very likely to the fatal
cost of their coherence as ideas, but then providing a compensation for this
divestment of substance with an investment of amplified instrumentality.
These hyperbolic aspirations seem to function more or less as
pseudo-scientific correlates to the conventional omni-predicates of theology
? omniscience, omnipotence, omnibenevolence ? translated from the project to
apprehend the supernatural divinity of God to the project to grab personal
transcendence as a super-natural demi-divinity via technoscience. Suffice it
to say that it is not in my view the available science that inspires
superlative aspirations, but science that provides the pretext and
rationalization for indulgence in what are essentially faith-based
initiatives.


It is the extraordinary assertion of belief that demands extraordinary
evidence and patient elaborations. Superlative futurologists are invested in
a whole constellation of flabbergastingly extraordinary claims ?
expectations of superhumanization, near-immortalization, and paradisical
plenitude ? yet often transhumanists demand as the price of skeptical
engagement with their discourse that critics become conversant with minute
?technical? disputes the relevance of which depends on the prior acceptance
of the whole fantastically marginal discourse in which they are embedded.
Meanwhile, the public life of their advocacy, whatever the ?technical?
details they insist undergird it, continues to proceed at a level of
generality and hyperbole built up mostly of metaphors, citations of myth,
activations of infantile wish-fulfillment fantasies and supported, at most,
with vague conjurations of inevitable progress, triumphalist reductionism,
and a handful of ?existence proofs,? usually from biology, that aren?t
analogous to the idealized outcomes that drive superlativity, at least not
at the bedeviling level of detail that concerns consensus scientists and
accountable policy-makers, but not so much ideologues, priests, and scam
artists.


Superlativity, then, is not science. It is a discourse, opportunistically
taking up a highly selective set of scientific results and ideas and
diverting them to the service of a host of wish-fulfillment fantasies that
are very old and very familiar, dreams of invulnerability, certainty,
immortality, and abundance that rail against the finitude of the human
condition.


Superlative discourses are a distraction and derangement of those aspects of
Enlightenment that would mobilize collective intelligence, expressivity, and
effort to the progressive democratization, consensualization, and
diversification of public life and the practical solution of shared
problems. Progress is not transcendence, nor is enlightenment a denial of
human finitude. There is more than enough sensationalism and irrationalism
distorting urgently needed sensible public deliberation on, for example, the
environmental and bioethical quandaries of disruptive technoscientific
change at the moment.


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