Futurisms: Critiquing the project to reengineer humanity

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Remedial Anthropological Extinction Studies

This summer, Brian Hoffstein is attending the Singularity University Graduate Studies Program, and over at the Singularity Hub, he writes that they are “thinking exponentially,” and that this is exciting stuff: “participants have hit the ground running,” and are being repeatedly assured that amazing things are already possible, not to speak of all that is just around the corner. You see, “exponential technologies are powerful, and this power can be harnessed for good.” This power is a reflection of the fact that, in Kevin Kelly’s words, “evolution has evolved its own evolvability,” and that ability introduces a good deal of uncertainty about the future—“thinking about the future is a brain teaser,” opines Mr. Hoffstein. However, “despite the limits we put on ourselves to forecast and predict the future, we have a pretty good understanding of what we can expect in the next couple decades.”

The “limits we put on ourselves”? If he means limits we put on ourselves voluntarily, then one might have thought those were the least of our constraints when forecasting the future (though doubtless they play a role). But never mind, for we have already a pretty good idea about what to expect, because “ ‘the future is here, it’s just not evenly distributed.’ For the remainder of the summer, the goal is to distribute the future so we can flourish in the present.”

Oh, to be young again, and to face for the first time those late night bull sessions, taking up the deep existential questions like how to distribute the future so we can flourish in the present!

Actually, we did a fair amount of exponential thinking in my (relative) youth; the seventies were lousy with the stuff. Except back then it was not good news. The likes of the Club of Rome and Paul Ehrlich wanted us to learn exponential thinking in order to understand why modern civilization was going to destroy itself. You heard then the same arguments you hear today about the special effort we evolutionarily disadvantaged mere human beings need to make to think exponentially. Back then, the claim was that our very survival depended on learning how to do it. Now we are promised it is the route to flourishing.

When I started writing about environmentalism in the eighties, the more I looked into such claims the more they seemed to be a product of questionable data, questionable methods, outright hype if not hysteria, and a very problematic political agenda. So far as I can tell, not much has changed in this respect. Back then, experts lectured about how cutting-edge technologies were destroying us. Now, they lecture about how they will save us.

Or not us, exactly. We are, after all, taking about Singularity University. The transhumanists of the early twenty-first century are preaching the imminent destruction of mankind as fervently as the environmentalists of the late twentieth. The difference is that the transhumanists are rooting for it.

2 comments:

  1. The vast majority of the participants at Singularity University are fervently striving towards the endurance of mankind, rather than its destruction. It is just that many of them feel that exponential thinking and technological advance are vital tools for humanity's survival and advancement.

    Further, for better or worse, most participants at Singularity University are not transhumanist. Some are indeed present, but most people are there because of the diverse community of free-thinkers.

    I myself am not a transhumanist, but am involved at Singularity University because it is one of the few places where I can openly discuss just about any idea and freely cross disciplines. My own work in Human Dynamics, which is developing a physical science of human history, is an example of such an idea.

    Transhumanists have some good ideas, but so do the environmentalists, libertarians, progressives, feminists, engineers, policy wonks, etc. These viewpoints are all alive and well at Singularity University, and it is the vibrant, free-thinking, humanistic atmosphere there that has helped restore some of my enthusiasm for the future of humanity.

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  2. Thanks to Mr. Ciotola for clarifying for me the diversity of the participants at Singularity U. And yet I can't help but continue to wonder if these free-thinking humanists and transhumanists might not look more diverse in their own eyes than in the eyes of an outsider such as myself, who suspects that being united by a belief in the saving powers of "exponential thinking and technological advance" might produce its own kind of tunnel vision or group think. Is there not, for example, a common reductionism in treating human bodies as "meat machines", as transhumanists so typically do, and treating human history as an instantiation of the laws of physics? Indeed, I'm sorry to say that when Mr. Ciotola characterizes Singularity U as being populated by "environmentalists, libertarians, progressives, feminists, engineers, policy wonks, etc.," it sounds an awful lot to me like just about any other University today, at most of which intellectual diversity is notorious for spanning the wide range of A to B.

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