Interview with Michael Cavallaro, author of the dystopian novel Cybernetica, which is about the possibility of pervasive thought control using subliminal cybernetic influence. Followed by news of the use of cannabis as an anti-cancer medicine.
Debates about future technological developments, and their social acceptance or rejection, frequently involve claims that these developments will challenge equality or that their emergence will be inconsistent with egalitarian political aspirations. Sometimes it is difficult to get clear exactly what argument is being put here.
Now that George Bush has vetoed a bill rejecting legislation passed by Congress that would have expanded federal research on embryonic stem cells, Americans have been given a taste of what Canadians have had to deal with for the past four years.
It’s the number one religion (by proportion of adherents) in the states of Washington and Idaho; it’s the number two religion in California, Utah, Massachusetts and Arkansas. In most states, in fact, it ranks as the #2 or #3 belief, and in only a few is it #4 or #5. Nationwide, it ranks #3 overall, just behind Baptist (#2) and Catholic (#1). Yet very few elected officials profess this faith, and a significant plurality of US voters say that they’d never vote for someone who believes this. What is this religion?
It’s worth remembering this in light of recent statements by Sen. Barack Obama about the importance of religion to the Democratic party. Non-believers aren’t just a tiny fringe element in American society, and they aren’t just found in coastal “blue states.” Non-religious people make up a higher percentage of the populations of Idaho, Montana, and Nevada than they do of those of California, Massachusetts or New York. This isn’t the narrative we’re given by popular culture or media, but it’s reality.
I find this useful info for those of us thinking about the future for this reason: the stories we’re told about how a society works may not match the reality, and we shouldn’t build our models and scenarios based on what we assume to be true.
A friend and very interesting interlocutor of mine registered the impression earlier this afternoon that I appear to think technoprogressive folks are closer politically and culturally to what he called “environmental primitivists” than to “tech-positive libertarians.” I am assuming this means folks like John Zerzan on the one hand and Tim May on the other. Anyway, my friend wondered, “As time passes, and debates get hotter, can we imagine how the opposite might become true?”
The quick answer is simply to say that I personally feel no closer to luddite Deep Ecologists than to libertopian technophiles. Both perspectives seem to me wrongheaded for multiple, but mostly different, reasons. But I think it is more important to notice that the question has been framed here in a way that virtually ensures any answer that follows will be misleading.
On The Cyborg and the Yogi (CybYogi) this week (2006-07-15) Matt and I discuss the relationship of science and spirituality, moral reform versus political reform, spiritual soldiering, magic mushrooms and faith healing. The Cyborg and the Yogi is a bi-weekly podcast on the relationship of science and spirituality, focusing especially on neuroscientific research relating to yoga and meditation. CyborgYogi is produced by J. Hughes, executive director of the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies, and Matthew Falkowski, co-director of Samadhi Yoga Studio in Machester Connecticut.
An article that appeared last week in AlterNet, written by Traci Hukill, sounded a strong warning about the prospect of laboratory-produced “cultured meat” substitutes to animal corpses as food, and the piece has attracted widespread attention. As a longtime ethical vegetarian who has written on this topic before, Hukill’s piece certainly attracted my own attention.
John Horgan is a science journalist at Stevens Institute of Technology, and author of Rational Mysticism, The End of Science, and The Undiscovered Mind. His blog is “The Scientific Curmudgeon.” We talked about the scientific approach to mysticism and transhumanist technohype.
In 1995 US President Clinton appointed 18 professional bioethicists to a National Bioethics Advisory Commission to advise him on research ethics. After the announcement of Dolly the sheep having been cloned in 1997 the NBAC was asked propose cloning policy. The NBAC advised that the NSF/NIH should fund therapeutic stem cloning but that there should be a five year moratorium on reproductive cloning research because it was still too unsafe for human subjects. (In fact, it is still too unsafe for human subjects). The NBAC expired in 2001.
If scenario creation was the poster-boy for futurism in the mid-1990s, artifact creation looks to play that role for mid-2000s futurism. Combining strategic foresight with what amounts to concept-car design, efforts such as the Institute for the Future’s “Artifacts from the Future” and Management Innovation Group‘s “Tangible Futures” seek to give clients a sense of what tomorrow might hold through the use of physically (or at least visually) instantiated objects. These objects make up in conceptual weight what they may lack in detailed context; holding a fruit carrying a label showing the various pharmacological products added to its DNA is far more arresting than reading a story about big pharma taking over big farmers, let alone a simple listing of this development as a possibility.
The goal of cloning early-stage human embryos to produce stem cells for use in research, and eventually to treat diseases, is likely to remain controversial. Those who see this research as destroying human life and those who do not regard these blastocysts (embryos in their very early stages) as human life have found little middle ground.
The battle is between “those who see this as the first step to a Brave New World and those of us who see this as a legitimate ... step toward regenerative medicine and all the benefits that can accrue” from that, says James Hughes, a sociologist and executive director of the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies in Hartford, Conn. The group promotes the use of biotechnology to expand human capacities.
“Size Does Matter”—So says the cover of a special issue [PDF] Friends of the Earth magazine devoted to nanotechnology.
Among the important questions they ask are:
Is it acceptable to attempt to remake the world from the atom up?
Whose interests is nanotechnology being developed in, and for what purpose?
Who bears the risks and who will receive the profits?
What would the ability to produce atomically precise manufactured goods from a home nano-factory mean for global trade and labour markets?
When considering the question of what a future nano world would look like, it is critical to go beyond the rhetoric of the nano optimists and ask first who controls this emerging powerful new technology, for what purposes is it being developed, and in whose interests is it being managed?
Here’s a nice summation of the judge’s conclusion:
We need to remember that all hypotheses go through a stage where one or a small number of investigators believe something and others raise doubts. The conventional wisdom is usually correct. But while most radical ideas are in fact wrong, it is a hallmark of the scientific process that it is fair about considering new propositions; every now and then, radical ideas turn out to be true. Indeed, these exceptions are often the most momentous discoveries in science.
SENS has many unsupported claims and is certainly not scientifically proven. I personally would be surprised if de Grey is correct in the majority of his claims. However, I don’t think Estep et al. have proved that SENS is false; that would require more research. In some cases, SENS makes claims that run parallel to existing research (while being more sensational). Future investigation into those areas will almost certainly illuminate the controversy. Until that time, people like Estep et al. are free to doubt SENS. I share many of those doubts, but it would be overstating the case to assert that Estep et al. have proved their point.
“But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscovered country, from whose bourn
No traveller returns, puzzles the will,
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of?”
—Wm. Shakespeare, Hamlet
The idea that tomorrow is a destination, an “undiscovered country,” is the lifeblood of classic futurism. We wish to see where we are headed; we want to know what hidden shoals to avoid, and which strong currents to follow. It’s this idea of the future as a place just over the horizon that allows us to imagine the “end of history,” to fear getting to the future as a race to be lost, to see tomorrow as a land we have yet to conquer.
I had the somewhat surreal experience last night of participating in a focus group on the California energy industry. My experience was odd because, about a quarter of the way through, the moderator was called out by the faceless folks behind the mirror, and when he returned, he asked that I, in essence, keep my mouth shut. I literally knew too much about the world of energy production, distribution and efficiency to make a good focus group participant. I was told that they’d love to hear what I had to say at the end, if there was enough time. I did manage to sneak a couple of comments in here and there, but I ended up being more an observer than anything else.
An interesting recent article of the Times Online ( Welcome to a revolution with no end in sight) says: Virtual reality used to be a popular notion a decade or so ago, but now the phrase sounds so dated that the concept has become unfashionable long before it exists. Yet a version of the concept is taking off as people want to lose themselves in the complex virtual worlds of multiplayer computer games - and it heralds a revolution in media consumption that is unfolding at blistering speed.
I have long thought that when Aristotle defined “man” [sic] as the “political animal,” this formulation constituted a fledgling kind of cyborg manifesto written many centuries before Donna Haraway’s own. Aristotle’s definition amounts to the claim that human animals become different in their “essential natures” when they live together in cities.
Back in September, 2005, I tossed off a quick response to something I had read on the technoliberation list, and then I revised it into a short essaylet for Amor Mundi. Since I posted the original here, “Democracy Among the Experts” has exerted a weird fascination on me, for some reason. Every few weeks or so I find myself drawn back into it, and I start tinkering, editing, generally fussing around with it again. I realize now that the essay has grown quite different from the original, and although I cannot promise that it has reached a more final form, it did occur to me that it was sufficiently different at this point to merit consideration on its own terms. I am starting to suspect that the rather throwaway comment at the beginning of the piece—about deliberative and sustainable development being the two parallel planks in my own technoprogressive vision—probably tells me where this essay will eventually go next… Showing how deliberative and sustainable development are not only both necessary to a properly technoprogressive politics, but interdependent as well.
It has been demonstrated time after tragic time—in colonial North America, 1940’s Germany, Cambodia, former Yugoslavia, Rwanda, Darfur… Large, even mainstream groups of people can be induced to slaughter other groups of people by the millions, just for political or economic convenience.
I have a real soft spot for the 1978 version of Superman, so it was with some anticipation that I went to see Superman Returns yesterday with my eldest son – who is practically the same age now as I was back in ’78. After sitting (and often squirming) through the 2½ hour updated version, let’s just say that Superman Returns didn’t have nearly the same impact as its predecessor. It was actually quite mediocre, but it’s given me some fodder for a rant.
Like most of my reviews, this one is spoiler ridden, so stop reading now if this poses a problem for you.
MT Is there a substantial distinction between a technoprogressive and a transhumanist?
DC “Technoprogressive” is just a shorthand way of saying “technology-focused progressive.” My impression from the transhumanist-identified people I know is that most of them see themselves as part of a cultural movement with a unique shared identity and a coherent political program of the kind I would tend to associate with organized parties or membership organizations.
MA number of people hold the opinion that technological change is slowing down as opposed to accelerating. Do you disagree with that assessment and if so how what
counterargument would you put to such people?
NB It depends on how you measure “technological change”. If we use long-term
trends in economic productivity growth as a general proxy for overall technological change, then it has long been accelerating (productivity is growing exponentially). But if by technological change we mean something more phenomenological - say, how much psychological adjustment the average person needs to make in a year due to changing technology - then I don’t know whether the rate of change is faster, slower, or about the same as it was a hundred years ago.