Futurisms: Critiquing the project to reengineer humanity

Monday, November 16, 2009

Quick Links: Singularity University, Neuro-Trash, and more

• Imagine the frat parties: Ted Greenwald, a senior editor of the print edition of Wired magazine, has been attending and covering Singularity University for Wired.com. We’ll have more on this in the days ahead. Meanwhile, Nick Carr suggests some mascots for Singularity U.

• Squishy but necessary: Last month, Athena Andreadis, the author of the book The Biology of Star Trek, had a piece in H+ Magazine throwing cold water on some visions of brain uploading and downloading. Money quote: “It came to me in a flash that many transhumanists are uncomfortable with biology and would rather bypass it altogether for two reasons.... The first is that biological systems are squishy — they exude blood, sweat and tears, which are deemed proper only for women and weaklings. The second is that, unlike silicon systems, biological software is inseparable from hardware. And therein lies the major stumbling block to personal immortality.”

• Thanks, guys: We’re pleased to have fans over at the “Fight Aging” website, where they say we “write well.” The praise warms our hearts, it truly does. We only wish that those guys were capable of reading well. Their post elicited this response from our Futurisms coauthor Charles Rubin: “Questioning what look to us to be harebrained ideas of progress does not make us ‘against progress.’ Nor does skepticism about ill-considered notions of the benefits of immortality make us ‘for suffering’ or ‘pro-death.’ It may be that the transhumanists really cannot grasp those distinctions, perhaps because of their apparently absolute (yet completely unjustified) confidence in their ability to foretell the future. Only if they have a reliable crystal ball — if they can know with certainty that their vision of the future will come to pass — does opposition to their vision of progress make us ‘anti-progress’ and does acknowledging the consequences of mortality make us ‘pro-death.’” Indeed. And I might add that such confidence in unproven predictive powers seems less like the rationality transhumanists claim to espouse than like uncritical faith.

• A sporting chance: Gizmodo has an essay by Aimee Mullins — an actress, model, former athlete, and double amputee — about technology, disability, and competition. Her key argument: “Advantage is just something that is part of sports. No athletes are created equal. They simply aren’t, due to a multitude of factors including geography, access to training, facilities, health care, injury prevention, and sure, technology.” Mullins concedes that it might be appropriate to keep certain technological enhancements out of sport, but she is “not sure” where to draw the line, and she advises not making any decisions about technologies before they actually exist.

• On ‘Neuro-Trash’: A remarkable essay in the New Humanist by Raymond Tallis on the abuse of brain research. Tallis starts off by describing how neuroscience is being applied to ever more aspects of human affairs. “This might be regarded as harmless nonsense, were it not for the fact that it is increasingly being suggested ... that we should use the findings of neurosciences to guide policymakers. The return of political scientism, particularly of a biological variety, should strike a chill in the heart.” Beneath this trend, Tallis writes, lies the incorrect “fundamental assumption” that “we are our brains.” (Vaughan over at MindHacks describes Tallis’s essay as “barnstorming and somewhat bad-tempered.” Readers looking for more along these lines might also enjoy our friend Matt Crawford’s New Atlantis essay on “The Limits of Neuro-Talk.”)

• Calling Ringling Bros.: We’ve known for a long time that people talking on cell phones get so distracted that they can become oblivious to what’s physically around them — entering a state sometimes called “absent presence.” In the October issue of Applied Cognitive Psychology, a team of researchers from Western Washington University reported the results of an experiment observing and interviewing pedestrians to see if they noticed a nearby clown wearing “a vivid purple and yellow outfit, large shoes, and a bright red nose” as he rode a bicycle. As you would expect, cell phone users were pretty oblivious. Does this suggest that we’ll suffer from increasing “inattentional blindness” as we are bombarded with ever more stimuli from increasingly ubiquitous gadgets? Not necessarily: it turns out that pedestrians listening to music tended to notice the clown more than those walking in silence. The cohort likeliest to see the clown consisted of people walking in pairs.

• Metaphor creep: “If the brain is like a set of computers that control different tasks,” says an SFSU psychology professor, then “consciousness is the Wi-Fi network that allows different parts of the brain to talk to each other and decide which action ‘wins’ and is carried out.”

• Another kind of ‘Futurism’: This year marks the centenary of the international Futurist art movement. The 1909 Futurist Manifesto that kicked it all off is explicitly violent and even sexist in its aims (“we want to exalt movements of aggression, feverish sleeplessness, the double march, the perilous leap, the slap and the blow with the fist ... we want to glorify war — the only cure for the world...”) and critical of any conservative institutions (professors and antiquaries are called “gangrene”; museums, libraries, and academies are called “cemeteries of wasted effort, calvaries of crucified dreams, registers of false starts”). Central to the Futurist vision was a love of new technologies — and of all the speed, noise, and violence of the machine age.

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