Futurisms: Critiquing the project to reengineer humanity

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Who Speaks for Earth?

A recent not-very-good article in The Independent presents as news what is really an ongoing debate within the relatively small community of scientists interested in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI). The issue is whether or under what circumstances SETI should become “METI” — that is, Messages to Extraterrestrial Intelligence. We have been listening for messages; should we start deliberately broadcasting them?

Image via Wikimedia
Actually, we have been doing this deliberately but hardly systematically for some decades now: think of the justly famous Pioneer plaques of 1972–73 and the Voyager Golden Record of 1977. David Brin, the noted science fiction author and admittedly a partisan of one side in this debate, provides an excellent background discussion, which I hope he will update again in light of the more recent events The Independent alludes to.

Like all discussions about SETI, the merits of this one depend heavily on our assumptions about the nature and existence of advanced extraterrestrial intelligence, a topic that reasonable people are very free to disagree on because we know absolutely nothing about it. For example, the whole question of sending messages to planetary systems that we have newly identified as good targets for having life at all (which discoveries seem to be spurring the current round of METI interest) presupposes not only that we have some solid understanding of all the conditions under which life can emerge. It also presupposes what some would regard as a rather old-fashioned SETI model of interplanetary communication between intelligences more or less advanced yet bound to their planets. For those transhumanists like Hans Moravec who see the future on our planet as artificial intelligences greedily transforming matter into computational substrates and spreading out in a wave of expansion traveling at not much less than the speed of light (think Borgs without bodies) the notion that we should just send messages over to other planets can only look quaint. Or if intelligent self-replicating nanomachines are in our future, then we may already be sending messages to ETI without even knowing it because such machines created by super-intelligent aliens may already be here among us. And so on. Transhumanist responses to SETI have shown how the sky is the limit when it comes to our imagination of not-implausible ETI scenarios (indeed, what defines “plausible”?). And imagination will be all we have to go on, until well after we have had some comprehensible first contact.

I admit to finding both sides of the METI debate unsatisfying. Those who advocate sending messages are counting either on a dogmatic belief in the benevolent nature of alien life or on the vastness of cosmic distances to act as a quarantine effect. These are both dubious assumptions; I discuss them critically at some length in my new book Eclipse of Man.

And there is certainly something to David Brin’s concern that the advocates of sending messages are taking a great deal on themselves by proceeding along these lines without a more thorough consideration of the merits of the case. Yet Brin’s own desire for international consultation, or, as he puts it on his website, getting “input from humanity’s best and wisest sages ... while laying all the issues before a fascinated general public,” does not conform to the sensible reservations he expresses elsewhere about the wisdom of individuals and seems pretty thin gruel if indeed the fate of all of humanity is at stake. It is a wonderful thing “to open up broader, more eclectic and ecumenical discussions.” But we still have to wonder about their results, if indeed they reach any conclusions at all, when there is no framework of authority for actually shepherding such a discussion to a presumptively globally legitimate and enforceable conclusion — which is almost certainly just as well when you stop and think about the way so many of the global political institutions we do have actually work. We may not know anything about extraterrestrial intelligence, but we do know the answer to the question, “Who speaks for Earth?” So far: nobody, thank goodness.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Darwin Among the Transhumanists

Image: Wikimedia / Patche99z (CC)
Today is “Darwin Day” — the anniversary of the great naturalist Charles Darwin’s birth in 1809 — which is as good a time as any to reflect on the complicated ways in which Darwinian thinking influences the transhumanists. This is discussed at several points in Eclipse of Man, the new book by our Futurisms colleague Charles Rubin, which you should go out and buy today.

Professor Rubin lays out some of the ways, both obvious and subtle, that the Darwinian idea of evolution via competition was picked up by the predecessors of today’s transhumanists. This fundamental idea is in tension with the ideas of other major thinkers, like the philosopher Condorcet’s sunny belief in human improvement and the economist Thomas Malthus’s worries about scarcity and limited resources. “Through to our own day,” Rubin writes, “much of the debate about progress has arisen from tensions among these three men’s ideas: Condorcet’s optimism about human perfectibility, the Malthusian problem of resource scarcity, and the Darwinian conception of natural competition as a force for change over time. The transhumanists, as we shall see, reconcile and assimilate these ideas by advocating the end of humanity.”

Transhumanism, Professor Rubin writes, is

an effort to maintain some concept of progress that appears normatively meaningful in response to Malthusian and Darwinian premises that challenge the idea of progress. Malthusianism has come to be defined by thinking that the things that appear to be progress — growing populations and economies — put us on a self-destructive course, as we accelerate toward inevitable limits. But it almost seems as if, in the spirit of
Malthus’s original argument, there is something inevitable also about that acceleration, that we are driven by some force of nature beyond our control to grow until we reach beyond the capacities of the resources that support that growth. Meanwhile, mainstream Darwinian thinking has done everything it can to remove any taint of progress from the concept of evolution; evolution is simply change, and randomly instigated change at that.

Transhumanism rebels against the randomness of evolution and the mindlessness of a natural tendency to overshoot resources and collapse. It rejects ... the “assumption of mediocrity” in favor of arguing that man has a special place in the scheme of things. But its rebellion is not half as radical as it assumes, for transhumanism builds on the very same underlying conception of nature that the Malthusians and Darwinians build on, vociferously rejecting the thought that nature has any inherent normative goals or purposes. While it rejects blind evolution as a future fate for man, it accepts it as the origins of man. While it rejects a Malthusian future, it does so with threatening the same old apocalypse if we do not transcend ourselves, and, in the form of Kurzweil’s law of accelerating returns, it adopts a Malthusian sense that mankind is in the grip of forces beyond its control.

Because transhumanism accepts this account of nature, it is driven to reject nature. Rejecting also any religious foundations for values, then, it is left with nothing but socially constructed norms developed in response to human power over nature, which, given the unpredictable transformative expectations they have for that power as it becomes not-human, ultimately amounts to nothing at all. Transhumanism is a nihilistic response to the nihilism of the Malthusians and Darwinians.

You can see why Peter Lawler says Eclipse of Man is a “hugely significant accomplishment”: you simply won’t find as insightful, thoughtful, and trenchant a critique of transhumanism anywhere else.

Friday, February 6, 2015

Listen up forefathers

A recent iPad Air 2 commercial (“Change is in the air”) features a song by The Orwells called “Who Needs You” with the following lyrics. The italicized portions are the lines actually used in the spot:

You better toss your bullets
You better hide your guns
You better help the children
Let ’em have some fun

You better count your blessings
Kiss mom and pa
You better burn that flag
Cause it ain’t against the law!

You better pledge your allegiance
You’re not the only one
Listen up forefathers
I’m not your son
You better save the country
You better pass the flask
You better join the army
I said: “no thank you, dear old uncle Sam!”

You better toss your bullets
You better hide your guns
You better help the children
Let them have some fun, some fun, some fun!

On its own terms I find the social commentary of the song a bit murky. It is hard for me, old fogey that I am, to distinguish between the things “you better” do that are meant ironically and the things you better do that are serious, if there are any such. The song seems to stretch for a Sixties-style oppositional sensibility without any clear sense of what to be opposed to. Is it a sly lament about alienation and not feeling needed, or a declaration of complete autonomy? Is the lesson that helping the children is fun? Maybe hipper and younger people at Apple caught the drift when they edited the song in such a way as to suggest that having “some fun” really is the key point. But even then, I wonder what fun is it to burn the flag if it is not against the law? And who cares if you don’t join the army when there is no draft?

Still, the use of the song by a huge and profitable corporation like Apple strikes me as (ahem) Orwellian, if in a relatively familiar big-business-cutting-its-own-throat sort of way. Who needs you? Apple needs you, to be the success it is, a success that still seems to be riding very much on the coattails of its forefather, Steve Jobs. And indeed, most of the images in the ad suggest that you need people in order to have fun with your iPad, or indeed help “the children” with it.

But the inner contradictions are not the only problem. Apple has been able to have its success in this country precisely because it is a child of its forefathers. The Constitution of the United States, as it serves to protect private property, provide the rule of law, protect trade and intellectual property, promote domestic tranquility, and provide for the common defense, is the necessary condition of Apple’s existence, let alone of its managers’, shareholders’, and workers’ ability to profit from its existence. (The same might be said of the suburban-kid Orwells, of course.) If the changes in the air are based on a repudiation of the foundations secured by our forefathers, Apple will not long thrive. Go have some fun then.

Apple wants to be in our heads, and is pretty good at getting there. And this dismissive — dare I say unpatriotic — attitude is the message they choose to link with their product. There’s no arrogance like big-business tech arrogance, no blindness like that of the West-coast masters of the universe who think that the world was created at the beginning of the last product cycle.