Saturday, September 11, 2004

Six sci-fi writers consider our social future

[via Gravity Lens] John Shirley of Locus Magazine recently asked 6 science fiction writers to speculate about our social future. These writers were Cory Doctorow, Pat Murphy, Kim Stanley Robinson, Norman Spinrad, Bruce Sterling and Ken Wharton. Some of the issues addressed include the environment, copyright, social trends, terrorism, war, world government, and the upcoming Presidential election.
Some questions are hard to formulate — but you carry them around inside you, like Confucius overlong in the womb, waiting for a way to ask them. I wanted to know about the quality of life in the future. I wanted to know about our political life; the scope of our freedom. I wanted to know what it was going to be like on a daily basis for my son and my grandson — I wanted to know if perhaps my son would do better to have no children at all. Those are general yearnings, more than specific questions. The questions I came up with still seem too general, and approximate. “I think it helps to use Raymond Williams' concept of 'residual and emergent,'” Kim Stanley Robinson told me, “...and consider the present as a zone of conflict between residual and emergent social elements, not making residual and emergent code words for 'bad and good' either.” Residual and emergent: yes. But what will reside and what emerge? From here, the future is just that unfocused. So I simply I asked the only questions I had... and six science fiction writers answered.

Anti-Capitalist Science Fiction Rock Opera in Wash DC

The Science Fiction Rock Opera of the New Millennium: When ET Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

Contact: Cheles Rhynes Phone: 202-722-0770
WHAT: When ET Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest An Anti-Capitalist Science Fiction Rock Opera
WHEN: Friday, October 8 and Saturday, Oct. 9, 2004 at 8 PM Matinee performance, Sunday, October 10th at 4 PM [Press only preview performance Wednesday, Oct. 6 at 8 PM]
WHERE: Takoma Theater 6833 4th St. NW Washington, DC, 20012 [the Theater is 2 blocks from the Takoma Park Metro]
Tickets: General Admission - $15.00 in advance, $18 at the door, $12 students and seniors Call (202) 291-8060 for information, 800-494-TIXS for tickets or on the web at

Cornel West says democracy still matters

[via Sentient Developments]

Afro-American intellectual and Princeton scholar Cornel West has published his latest book, "Democracy Matters: Winning the Fight Against Imperialism." This is a follow-up to his acclaimed 1993 book, "Race Matters."

West, an unorthodox academic (he recorded a hip-hop album in 2001 and appeared as Councillor West in The Matrix II and III), describes himself as a "non-Marxist socialist" (due to Marx's opposition to religion), and serves as honorary chair of the Democratic Socialists of America, which he has described as "the first multiracial, socialist organization close enough to my politics that I could join." He has was involved with the Million Man March and Russell Simmons's Hip-Hop Summit, and has worked with such controversial figures as Louis Farrakhan (whom he has actively criticized), and Al Sharpton, whose 2004 presidential campaign West advised.

In "Democracy Matters," West worries that nihilism has now spread to Americans of all races. "Many have given up even being heard," he writes, and have succumbed to "sour cynicism, political apathy and cultural escapism." Writing a review in the New York Times, Caleb Crain writes:
American democracy, he feels, is threatened by "free-market fundamentalism," "aggressive militarism" and "escalating authoritarianism." It will be saved, if it can be, by recourse to "the Socratic commitment to questioning," "the prophetic commitment to justice" and "tragicomic hope." West believes that in the fight against imperialism, the black experience may be a crucial resource, because blacks relied on tragicomic hope in their struggle for freedom, and it remains legible in their history and audible in black music, from the blues to hip-hop.
He also believes that the political nihilism of the nation's elite also comes in three varieties, namely "evangelical nihilism," "paternalistic nihilism," and "sentimental nihilism."

West's solution is tied in closely with his religious inclinations. As Craine notes,
He offers to remind readers of democratic resources in America's cultural heritage, assess the obstacles and contributions to democracy of Judaism, Islam and Christianity and suggest ways of reaching young people. But he doesn't subject the concept of nihilism to further analysis. If you accept his descriptions, the argument is won. But he makes no effort to persuade anyone not yet a believer.
In closing the review, Craine writes,
West's intellectual catchment area is enormous -- he touches on topics as disparate as rap history, the Islamic novel in the 20th century and the latest thinking on postmodern Christian theology and the public sphere. But if he wants to address the people, he needs to give them more than just unfamiliar facts. He needs to give them reason to believe him, even if they don't really want to. At the perilous task of disillusionment, journalists, however sentimental, have been doing a better job.

Friday, September 10, 2004

Nick Bostrom's Rebuttal to Francis Fukuyama

[Via Sentient Developments] Nick Bostrom, the Chair of the World Transhumanist Association, has penned a rebuttal in response to Francis Fukuyama's assertion that transhumanism is among the greatest threats currently facing humanity.

Published in the September/October edition of Foreign Policy, Fukuyama describes transhumanism as "a strange liberation movement" that wants "nothing less than to liberate the human race from its biological constraints." He goes on to state his usual argument, which is that suffering and other negative aspects of humanity is necessary in order for us to retain our human "essence" and properly function as individuals in society. He believes that without aggression, for example, that people wouldn't be able to fend for themselves, or that without jealousy there could be no love.

It's exactly this kind of flowery mumbo-jumbo that is emanating from the bioconservative camp these days, and Fukuyama, in my opinion, has put together a very weak and unconvincing article for FP. At one point Fukuyama attempts to demean the transhumanists by noting that, "The plans of some transhumanists to freeze themselves cryogenically in hopes of being revived in a future age seem only to confirm the movement's place on the intellectual fringe." [btw, Fukuyama has his terminology wrong: there's no such word as "cryogenically," as cryogenics is the study of low temperatures, as opposed to cryonics which is the practice of preserving frozen organisms; leave it to Fukuyama to botch-up these kinds of technological details while pooh-poohing it altogether] And lastly, he resorts to some rather juvenile ad hominem by noting in an aside that, "transhumanists are just about the last group I'd like to see live forever."

To set the record straight, Nick Bostrom recently wrote a letter to the editor of Foreign Policy. Mike LaTorra, Dale Carrico, and myself contributed to the piece.

Here's the letter in its unedited entirety:

Transhumanism: The World’s Most Dangerous Idea?
Nick Bostrom (2004)

“What idea, if embraced, would pose the greatest threat to the welfare of humanity?” This was the question posed by the editors of Foreign Policy in the September/October issue to eight prominent policy intellectuals, among them Francis Fukuyama, professor of international political economy at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, and member of the President’s Council on Bioethics.

And Fukuyama’s answer? Transhumanism, “a strange liberation movement” whose “crusaders aim much higher than civil rights campaigners, feminists, or gay-rights advocates.” This movement, he says, wants “nothing less than to liberate the human race from its biological constraints.”

More accurately, transhumanists advocate increased funding for research to radically extend healthy lifespan and favor the development of medical and technological means to improve memory, concentration, and other human capacities. Transhumanists propose that everybody should have the option to use such means to enhance various dimensions of their cognitive, emotional, and physical well-being. Not only is this a natural extension of the traditional aims of medicine and technology, but it is also a great humanitarian opportunity to genuinely improve the human condition.

According to transhumanists, however, the choice whether to avail oneself of such enhancement options should generally reside with the individual. Transhumanists are concerned that the prestige of the President’s Council on Bioethics is being used to push a limiting bioconservative agenda that is directly hostile to the goal of allowing people to improve their lives by enhancing their biological capacities.

So why does Fukuyama nominate this transhumanist ideal, of working towards making enhancement options universally available, as the most dangerous idea in the world? His animus against the transhumanist position is so strong that he even wishes for the death of his adversaries: “transhumanists,” he writes, “are just about the last group that I’d like to see live forever”. Why exactly is it so disturbing for Fukuyama to contemplate the suggestion that people might use technology to become smarter, or to live longer and healthier lives?

Fierce resistance has often accompanied technological or medical breakthroughs that force us to reconsider some aspects of our worldview. Just as anesthesia, antibiotics, and global communication networks transformed our sense of the human condition in fundamental ways, so too we can anticipate that our capacities, hopes, and problems will change if the more speculative technologies that transhumanists discuss come to fruition. But apart from vague feelings of disquiet, which we may all share to varying degrees, what specific argument does Fukuyama advance that would justify foregoing the many benefits of allowing people to improve their basic capacities?

Fukuyama’s objection is that the defense of equal legal and political rights is incompatible with embracing human enhancement: “Underlying this idea of the equality of rights is the belief that we all possess a human essence that dwarfs manifest differences in skin color, beauty, and even intelligence. This essence, and the view that individuals therefore have inherent value, is at the heart of political liberalism. But modifying that essence is the core of the transhumanist project.”

His argument thus depends on three assumptions: (1) there is a unique “human essence”; (2) only those individuals who have this mysterious essence can have intrinsic value and deserve equal rights; and (3) the enhancements that transhumanists advocate would eliminate this essence. From this, he infers that the transhumanist project would destroy the basis of equal rights.

The concept of such a “human essence” is, of course, deeply problematic. Evolutionary biologists note that the human gene pool is in constant flux and talk of our genes as giving rise to an “extended phenotype” that includes not only our bodies but also our artifacts and institutions. Ethologists have over the past couple of decades revealed just how similar we are to our great primate relatives. A thick concept of human essence has arguably become an anachronism. But we can set these difficulties aside and focus on the other two premises of Fukuyama’s argument.

The claim that only individuals who possess the human essence could have intrinsic value is mistaken. Only the most callous would deny that the welfare of some non-human animals matters at least to some degree. If a visitor from outer space arrived on our doorstep, and she had consciousness and moral agency just like we humans do, surely we would not deny her moral status or intrinsic value just because she lacked some undefined “human essence”. Similarly, if some persons were to modify their own biology in a way that alters whatever Fukuyama judges to be their “essence,” would we really want to deprive them of their moral standing and legal rights? Excluding people from the moral circle merely because they have a different “essence” from “the rest of us” is, of course, akin to excluding people on basis of their gender or the color of their skin.

Moral progress in the last two millennia has consisted largely in our gradually learning to overcome our tendency to make moral discriminations on such fundamentally irrelevant grounds. We should bear this hard-earned lesson in mind when we approach the prospect of technologically modified people. Liberal democracies speak to “human equality” not in the literal sense that all humans are equal in their various capacities, but that they are equal under the law. There is no reason why humans with altered or augmented capacities should not likewise be equal under the law, nor is there any ground for assuming that the existence of such people must undermine centuries of legal, political, and moral refinement.

The only defensible way of basing moral status on human essence is by giving “essence” a very broad definition; say as “possessing the capacity for moral agency”. But if we use such an interpretation, then Fukuyama’s third premise fails. The enhancements that transhumanists advocate – longer healthy lifespan, better memory, more control over emotions, etc. – would not deprive people of the capacity for moral agency. If anything, these enhancements would safeguard and expand the reach of moral agency.

Fukuyama’s argument against transhumanism is therefore flawed. Nevertheless, he is right to draw attention to the social and political implications of the increasing use of technology to transform human capacities. We will indeed need to worry about the possibility of stigmatization and discrimination, either against or on behalf of technologically enhanced individuals. Social justice is also at stake and we need to ensure that enhancement options are made available as widely and as affordably as possible. This is a primary reason why transhumanist movements have emerged. On a grassroots level, transhumanists are already working to promote the ideas of morphological, cognitive, and procreative freedoms with wide access to enhancement options. Despite the occasional rhetorical overreaches by some of its supporters, transhumanism has a positive and inclusive vision for how we can ethically embrace new technological possibilities to lead lives that are better than well.

The only real danger posed by transhumanism, it seems, is that people on both the left and the right may find it much more attractive than the reactionary bioconservatism proffered by Fukuyama, Leon Kass, and the other members of the President’s Council.

Pic of Alleged Wampeter at the Science Fiction Con

James is probably way too bashful to include a pic of himself at the recent Hugo Award ceremonies. But I'm not. What's interesting is that this pic was taken by El Jefe, who writes one of the more interesting blogs out there called "Gravity Lens". I find this interesting because both El Jefe and James are charter members of what Kurt Vonneget called the "karass". I am now convinced that these two are in my personal karass. Perhaps James is some kind of focal point or Wampeter. Sounds like something The Question should investigate...

Definition, keeping in mind that I'm a an atheist who thinks religion is basically the foma:

A karass is a "team [of people] that do[es] God's Will without ever discovering what they are doing". [ 1 ] Humanity is organized into many such teams. One can try to discover "the limits of [one's] karass and the nature of the work God Almighty has had it do ... but such investigations are bound to be incomplete." [ 2 ]

And for the record, "foma" is defined thus, from memory:

"The harmless untruths that keep us happy, healthy, wealthy and wise."

Kurzweil Claims He Hasn't Aged for 10 Years

I don't recall reading this here. I saw the link sometime ago over at "Fight Aging!"

Ray Kurzweil has a new book coming out and he did an interview about it for NPR's "The Point". That interview is here.

It features two, frankly, startling claims. One: Ray apparently came up with his own cure for his type II diabetes. And two: Ray can measure his age at the cellular level and apparently he hasn't aged for ten years. Well, I have to admit that does sound impressive. I sure hope James can snag him for an interview over at Changesurfer. Then again, I'm still waiting for my Ken Macleod vs. Stephen Den Beste Ultimate Fighting Championship Death Match said the disillusioned fan and fellow karass member.

I wonder if his therapies are cheap. I know a science fictional inventor like Kurzweil can afford the best stuff. Is there truly an affordable immortality plan for the materially challenged?

Thursday, September 09, 2004

H.G. Wells' 1928 'Open Conspiracy' for world revolution still inspiring

Surfing around doing some research on Julian Huxley, I ran across H.G. Wells' essay arguing for socialism and world government "The Open Conspiracy". Very inspiring and transhumanist:

THE new life that the Open Conspiracy struggles to achieve through us for our race is first a life of liberations.

The oppression of incessant toil can surely be lifted from everyone, and the miseries due to a great multitude of infections and disorders of nutrition and growth cease to be a part of human experience. Few people are perfectly healthy nowadays except for brief periods of happiness, but the elation of physical well-being will some day be the common lot of mankind.

And not only from natural evils will man be largely free. He will not be left with his soul tangled, haunted by monstrous and irrational fears and a prey to malicious impulse. From his birth he will breathe sweetness and generosity and use his mind and hands cleanly and exactly. He will feel better, will better, think better, see, taste, and hear better than men do now. His undersoul will no longer be a mutinous cavern of ill-treated suppressions and of impulses repressed without understanding. All these releases are plainly possible for him. They pass out of his tormented desire now, they elude and mock him, because chance, confusion, and squalor rule his life. All the gifts of destiny are overlaid and lost to him. He must still suspect and fear. Not one of us is yet as clear and free and happy within himself as most men will some day be. Before mankind lies the prospect not only of health but of magnanimity.

Within the peace and freedom that the Open Conspiracy is winning for us, all these good things that escape us now may be ensured. A graver humanity, stronger, more lovely, longer lived, will learn and develop the ever enlarging possibilities of its destiny. For the first time, the full beauty of this world will be revealed to its unhurried eyes. Its thoughts will be to our thoughts as the thoughts of a man to the troubled mental experimenting of a child. And all the best of us will be living on in that ampler life, as the child and the things it tried and learnt still live in the man. When we were children, we could not think or feel as we think and feel to-day, but to-day we can peer back and still recall something of the ignorances and guesses and wild hopes of these nigh forgotten years.

And so mankind, ourselves still living, but dispersed and reconstructed again in the future, will recall with affection and understanding the desperate wishes and troubled efforts of our present state.

How far can we anticipate the habitations and ways, the usages and adventures, the mighty employments, the ever increasing knowledge and power of the days to come? No more than a child with its scribbling paper and its box of bricks can picture or model the undertakings of its adult years. Our battle is with cruelties and frustrations, stupid, heavy and hateful things from which we shall escape at last, less like victors conquering a world than like sleepers awaking from a nightmare in the dawn. From any dream, however dismal and horrible, one can escape by realizing that it is a dream; by saying, “I will awake.”

The Open Conspiracy is the awaking of mankind from a nightmare, an infantile nightmare, of the struggle for existence and the inevitability of war. The light of day thrusts between our eyelids, and the multitudinous sounds of morning clamour in our ears. A time will come when men will sit with history before them or with some old newspaper before them and ask incredulously, “Was there ever such a world?”
Wells' The Open Conspiracy was published in 1928, subtitled "Blue Prints for a World Revolution," and revised and republished as "What Are We to Do with Our Lives?" in 1931.

Wednesday, September 08, 2004

Norman Geras: Is a stateless utopia possible?

Norman Geras begins a 3-part blog article in an attempt to explore the efficacy of three different types of schematic 'visions' that attempt to answer the question about whether a Marxist-style utopia is possible and how free people might be in it:
This series of posts is a critique of the Marxian idea of a future stateless utopia. It is an immanent critique. Were one to start from non-Marxist assumptions, detailed argument would scarcely be necessary. Non-Marxists just take it for granted that any organized modern society foreseeable from the present world must necessarily involve state-type institutions of governance. My aim here is to show that, even thinking from within the Marxist tradition, the idea of a stateless utopia is not sustainable, unless as a blind act of faith.

Lefties give Smalley a listen on nano-ecology-tech

In the Alternet web portal for left writers, John Gartner has written a surprisingly positive article, "Nanotech: Up and Atom," about Smalley's arguments for why nanomaterial research can have environmental benefits.
Smalley described how nanotechnology can also be used to create "super batteries" for storing hydrogen at homes or businesses to avoid using the electricity grid at peak times of demand....Smalley believes that finding a replacement for fossil fuels is essential to solving the world's top 10 problems, which he said include poverty, hunger, water, the environment and terrorism. Affordable energy would also help to reduce the economic imbalance between have and have nots....

A substantial investment would be needed to create the energy technologies, which Smalley said could happen as soon as 2020, since, "It's time to stop pussyfooting around and get it done." He outlined a nickel and dime approach – a 5-cent tax on each gallon of gas for the next five years, and then a 10-year tax of 10 cents per gallon.

Even if the energy problem isn't solved by then, he said, "At worst we will have created many new technologies and industries for the future."
Uh oh. Although I'm a Drexler partisan, Smalley is sounding really good here.

US media disses disabled and cyborgs at paralympics

Over at BoingBoing Xeni Jardin asks: "After saturation coverage of Olympics, why no Paralympics TV coverage in US?" I think this photo shows that its not just the disabled being dissed, but cyborgs as well.

Tuesday, September 07, 2004

Screened baby to save life of fatally ill brother

A couple were recently given the green light by Britain's Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority to undergo embryo screening treatment. It is hoped that the selected baby's stem cells will stimulate the growth of healthy red blood cells in its fatally ill 2 year old brother, Joshua Fletcher. Neither Joshua's parents, Joe and Julie Fletcher, nor his brother, 5-year old Adam, are close enough matches to donate the stem cells that he needs.

This is a good call and hopefully an important precedent. The way I look at it, instead of one dead 2-year old there's going to be two healthy and loved kids. And the younger sibling will always know that its "special cells" saved the life of its big brother.

The HFEA noted that subsequent cases would be judged on individual merit and the decision was not opening the flood gates for 'designer babies'.

Labor begins to think about long-term "productivity growth"

In American Prospect, Jared Bernstein, at the US labor-based Economic Policy Institute, argues that :
progressives need a more ambitious agenda to avoid the 1980s path and to raise the probability that the bounty of faster productivity growth is fairly shared.
And this new ambitious agenda? Either "redistributive mechanisms" or full employment. And guess what? Full employment is off the table because of "productivity growth".

Sunday, September 05, 2004

Post-Capitalist SF

I tabled WTA lit and my book flyer at Noreascon 4 Friday through Sunday. The only other SF cons I've attended were the Readercons, which are consciously focused on literary SF, and have much less of the traditional culture of fandom, which is of course a hoot. Noreascon 4 is 2004's world SF con, the annual con at which the Hugo awards are presented. About 7000 people attended, and it was a lot of fun if not terribly productive of recruits or book sales. I got to hang out with some Boston area transhumanists who helped me table - Marlin May, Emil Gilliam and Sam Kenyon - and finally met fellow CybDem blogger Charlie Stross, who was nominated for a Hugo for his Singularity Sky. (Lois McMaster Bujold, who is also a left transhumanist in my opinion, won this year's Hugo in the novel category for Paladin of Souls, a fantasy outside her usual Vorkosigan universe.)

The WTA table was next to the National Space Society and the Gaylaxians, the Gay and Lesbian SF society. While the NSS appeared to be at a low ebb of energy, the Galaxians had an envious constant stream of people bubbling up and boiling away to parties and panels.

I dragged my son along, and he generally focused on the anime, but had a wonderful time in the Harry Potter Live Action Role Play. He was less enthralled with the charming, but difficult to follow, production of "The Filkado," a pun-filled SF-themed opera base on Gilbert and Sullivan's Mikado, complete with constumes. And he really hated being made to sit through the 2.5 hours of the Hugo award ceremonies, even though it was MCed by the delicious, tuxedoed and charming Neil Gaiman, and included a fascinating retrospective by SF writer Robert Silverburg, who recounted Hugo ceremonies like Baycon in Berkeley 1968 at which they could smell the tear gas from a People's Park riot and had to patiently listen to the now infamous 45 minute speech from guest of honor Philip Jose Farmer which argued that SF was an early warning system for the world.

There were a lot of transhumanist panels, such as "When is a Cyborg?" with Connie Willis and Nancy Kress among others, and many discussions of the ethics of genetic engineering and neuroscience. At a panel on "Post-Capitalist Mechanisms" at Worldcon in Boston Cory Doctorow argued for open source as a post-capitalist paradigm, David Friedman dominated the conversation with his predictable anarcho-capitalist "everything would be better if we could just smash the state" arguments, and Ben Rosenbaum and M.M. Buckner pitching ideas from the left every once in a while, such as the potential that a post-scarcity reputation economy (as envisioned in Doctorow's Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom for instance) could be a potential dystopia (sounded too much like high school to Rosenbaum); uploaded workers would just get superexploited by firms; and that we will need postcapitalism once we all lose our jobs to robots, to which Friedman opined that a fully automated economy could remain capitalist through the exchange of land and money.

Next year's Worldcon will be in Glasgow Scotland, and as Scotland is the current capital of post-capitalist SF, between MacLeod, Banks and Stross, I think it would be a nice event for some left transhumanist get-togethers as well.