Dale Carrico – Superlative futurology
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:
 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;
 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;
 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;
 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;
 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);
 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;
 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;
 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, or this Condensed Critique of Transhumanism.
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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