Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Sucked into the Singularity

Due to circumstances somewhat beyond my control it looks like I'll be going to the Singularity Summit this weekend (long story short, my son is in a program that was handing out free registrations for young up and coming nerds, and so I get to go as his chaperon). I have decidedly mixed feelings about it. The technological religion of transhumanism gives me hives, but OTOH there are many smart people doing interesting things drawn into its orbit, so maybe I'll learn something.

Anyway, it's a chance to dig a little deeper into what bugs me about this movement:

First: it's a scene. I'm just not a scenester, something I've grudgingly come to acknowledge at my late stage of life. I don't want to belong to any club that would have me as a member, etc. And it's a particularly cultish sort of scene, a pseudo-religion that elevates science and technology into god-like forces. If I want religion I prefer a real one; I've been working with technology too long to believe that it can produce transcendence.

Second: Here's a post from leading singulitarian Eleazar Yudkowsky entitled "Politics is the Mind-killer". Like many of Yudkowsky's posts, its insightful and well-written, but it gets things exactly wrong. Or slightly more charitably, it goes in the exact opposite direction that I want to go in. Latour is all about the underlying politics of science and everything else. Ainslie is all about the internal politics of what happens within a singe individual. Politics, war, and conflict are central to existence, central to any comprehensive model of the universe. Denying the political is a trick used to disempower people; to make them accept existing power relations as somehow laws of the universe.

What happens when you have a movement that despises politics? Why, libertarianism of course, the default politics of geekdom and something I've talked about too many times to do it again here. One pithy description of libertarianism is the (absurd) belief that you can replace politics with economics. This conference is going to be crawling with libertarians of the most irritating sort. Such as seasteaders, a movement that just so perfectly captures something -- this ludicrous idea that utopia is to be found on a sterile metal platform sitting in the ocean, that by removing themselves from land and life they will leave their (admittedly shriveled) humanity behind. That it's run by the grandson of Milton Friedman is just nanoparticle icing on the synthetic cake.

What I'd like to see is a bunch of technofuturists who aren't playing at a kindergarten level when it comes to politics. Hm, maybe these so-called "technoprogressives"? Or the more extreme endpoints of the Government 2.0 movement, building the operating system for the society of the future?

OK, now that I've got the negativity out of the way, what do I like about these guys? Well, there are a lot of young, smart, idealistic, activist types circling around this movement. They even occasionally do things other than flame about the singularity. And, shit, they may be right -- it may in fact be the case that technical progress is accelerating to some sort of climactic, nonlinear, unimaginable state-change. Maybe science fiction novels are a good guide to the future. The Gulf of Mexico looks like a setting for a Bruce Sterling story, but that's not the kind of SF these guys have in mind. No, they think the future is gonna be bright, they are going to freeze their heads and download themselves to super-powerful computronium substrates that can be launched like seeds into vast depths of space to colonize the universe -- and that this is somehow going to be an answer to the problems of existence. Such naivete can be annoying, alarming, or occasionally charming.

1 comment:

exuberance said...

tee hee, have fun!