Saturday, January 28, 2006


Pamela Paul: "It's time to start asking questions about porn:
  • Have you ever looked at pornography?
  • Do you look at online porn every day?
  • Do you think your husband looks at it every day?
  • Are you afraid your children are getting hooked on porn?
Over the past ten years, technological advances, cultural shifts and social attitudes have transformed the pornography landscape. PORNIFIED is the first book to look at how this new culture of pornography is transforming people's lives in the 21st century. Using a mix of original qualitative and quantitative research, extensive interviews and vivid narrative, PORNIFIED tells the story of how men, women and children are affected by the ubiquity and mainstreaming of porn. The Internet, in particular, has made pornography more anonymous, more accessible and more affordable than ever before, bringing in new users, increasing use among existing fans, and catapulting others into sexual compulsivity. Children are being exposed to pornography earlier than ever before, in ways that may profoundly affect their sexuality. At the same time, child pornography is on the rise. Yet while most people are disturbed by these trends, we still approach the issue of porn in outdated and ineffective ways. PORNIFIED shows why it's important for all Americans - those who look at pornography and those who do not - to understand how porn has changed and what we need to do about it."

Read Stern's review of PORNIFIED on Slashdot.

The Future of Progressive Publishing

"One might think that the smaller independent progressive book publishers would be thriving, especially in the face of the Bush administration's rampant unpopularity. But, surprisingly, political publishing is in the doldrums. The publishing boom of post-9/11 and the earlier Bush years have faded, along with the effectiveness of progressive activism. Is there a connection with books and the state of political engagement? AlterNet invited four stalwarts of the progressive publishing universe to Mo Pitkin's in New York City to chat about the state of all things book publishing on January 11, 2006."

You can download the audio of this talk from AlterNet in four parts: Part One, Part Two, Part Three, Part Four.

Dark Ages America...

Morris Berman: "When I published my previous book in 2000, I characterized the historical phase we were in as a "twilight" period, similar to Rome in the waning days of its late-empire phase. It seems to me that it is not entirely an exaggeration to suggest that since 2000 we have effectively transited from twilight to night, entered a new Dark Age. Thus there are a number of developments that can be characterized as frankly medieval: the triumph of religion over reason, and a progressive rollback of Enlightenment humanism; a massive breakdown of education and critical thinking (the statistics of which will probably strike the reader as surreal); the actual legalization of torture, and its widespread use by the American government; and the growing political and economic marginalization of the United States on the world stage. Equally sobering is that the vast majority of Americans are either ignorant of these developments or actually approve of them, bringing to mind the famous remark by Will Durant that "a great nation is not conquered from without until it has destroyed itself from within." Certainly, as one British colleague wrote me, the United States will be part of the future, but (he added) most of the future will take place outside of the United States. There is abundant evidence to indicate that our historical moment is passing, and that the zeitgeist, as it were, is moving on."

Friday, January 27, 2006

Aussie writer points to the biocon brown-green convergence

In "Thinking beyond that coloured label", Australian political scientist David McKnight, author of Beyond Right and Left, argues that Greens and Fukuyama have a lot in common:
Conservative instincts often lie behind the political support of the Greens. Take the issues of genetic engineering and biotechnology. Many regard criticism of biotechnology as left-wing, but one of the most thoughtful critics is the conservative Francis Fukuyama.

Fukuyama fears that continuing to apply biotechnology to humans will alter human nature and will move us into a posthuman stage of history. The stage may see the rise of new problems such as a genetically superior social elite, the creation of generations living well over 100 years, the possibility of new types of quasi-humans. He wonders what would happen to the notion of human dignity and equal worth of all humans. So do Greens.
McKnight argues that Greens should stop trying to pretend they are radicals, embrace their inherent conservatism, and thereby achieve electoral success. Questionable sociologically and politically, but insightful biopolitically and philosophically.

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Mikko Rauhala is unarmed, dangerous and transhumanist

Six Degrees, a Finnish magazine that publishes in the English language, has interviewed activist Mikko Rauhala, a Finnish transhumanist, vegan, and most recently, anti-copyright law agitator.

Rauhala is a systems administrator at the University of Helsinki and is a founding member of Electronic Frontier Finland. In 2003 he co-founded the Finnish Transhumanist Association and is currently a member of the Information Society Working Group of the Green Party.

In the Six Degrees interview, Rauhala primarily discusses his work to combat what he sees as unfair practices in copyright law in Finland. He rightfully criticizes the stifling nature of copyright laws, which threatens to significantly constrain how end users can enjoy and use various forms of media. “[I]n this century,” he says, “we have seen both the absurd lengthening of the period of copyright at the behest of large corporations but also the runaway strengthening of the powers it gives to its wielders, who are in quite a real way monopolising our culture.”

Rauhala, like many transhumanists, holds libertarian-like values. In regards to state control, he argues that “[s]ome like to sell the idea that freedom is inherent in our Western capitalist society, but totalitarianism is not fundamentally a matter of left or right politics. There is a strong trend in Western societies today to reduce freedom and civil rights. We’re sliding towards more state control and more privileges for large corporations, who wield considerable political power.”

On this point I can't help but agree with Rauhala; today's corporatist world shares many of the totalitarian tendencies seen on the extreme left and right, particularly as it pertains to overwhelming political influence, media, culture, memetic dominance, and the perpetuation of the idea of citizen as consumer.

In regards to his transhumanist views, Rauhala encapsulates the movement quite well:
“The core of transhumanism lies basically in secular humanism, but with emphasis on the self-directed improvement of humanity. The common notion of some things being ‘natural’ and others ‘unnatural’ is cast aside. Transhumanism doesn’t apply any arbitrary limits to the methods that can be used to improve the human condition, or to the extent of the improvement. It’s basically that simple.

For example, if you ask whether people should be able to live longer productive lives, the answer would probably be yes. But if you talk about living to be, say, a thousand years old, many people hesitate and consider it unnatural. In transhumanist circles talking about living to be a thousand is almost conservative. Of course, life extension is just an example. Transhumanism advocates that people should generally be able to become more the people they want to be. Increased intelligence is often seen as central in this respect. The world has its share of difficult problems, and we need all the smart brains that we can get.”
For those interested in transhumanism and its ties to Finland, be sure to check out TransVision06 which will be held at the University of Helsinki from August 17-19, 2006.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Jaron Lanier on the Future of Virtual Reality

"Janice J. Heiss: You are known for claiming that virtual reality (which you are credited with naming) would eventually enhance our lives. How's it going?

Jaron Lanier: About ten years ago, I predicted that virtual reality would be accessible to consumers by about 2010. I still think that's true. Virtual reality is a somewhat broad idea, and the definition isn't fixed. It means different things to different people. As used in industrial technology, there's no question that virtual reality has already been a success. You can't buy a car today that wasn't designed using it. And you can't put gas in that car that wasn't made out of oil that was discovered using virtual reality through an oil field simulation. Most new drugs are made in a process assisted by virtual reality. There are many other examples.

What most people are curious about, though, isn't so much these industrial uses; rather, they want to experience some new level of cultural expression that arises out of virtual worlds. And what we currently have, in this regard, is the video game world. The difference between video games and my sense of what virtual reality would be like relates only partly to the intensity of the experience. Certainly we'd like to feel like we're inside the virtual world, and that world would be more vivid and fluid and detailed -- more computationally intensive -- than what we see today on PlayStation games. But the main difference isn't any of that stuff.

The main element lacking in video games (compared to what I hope we'll see in virtual reality) is an expressive power. And so, what I envision is not so much a pre-programmed virtual world that you might play as a game, but rather a virtual world that you can change from the inside; a world that people use as a form of expression, in which they're creating things together. Just as people make up their own Web pages, they would make up little realities and visit each other's realities, or co-create them. And I think that level of activity would give rise to really, really wonderful new sorts of human relationships and experiences. I still believe in that."

Read more at SDN.

Bostrom's Letter from Utopia

Transhumanist Nick Bostrom has penned a Letter From Utopia. The letter is written from the perspective of a potential future self who hopes that they will be realized in actuality. "I am one of your possible futures," writes the posthuman self, "If all goes well, you will one day become me. If that does happen, then I am not only a possible future of yours but your actual future. In that case, I am a coming phase of you."

He writes that there are three fundamental transformations that describes the journey from humanity to posthumanity:

- Transformation one: Extend your healthy lifespan
- Transformation two: Boost your cognitive capacities
- Transformation three: Elevate your emotional well-being

Bostrom argues that nothing in the laws of nature indicate that posthuman forms and utopian society are impossible. The trick, he says, is to get from here to there without "burning our wings."
I am concerned that the pursuit of utopia could bring out the worst in you. Please take my message in the right spirit. Many a moth has been incinerated in pursuit of a brighter future. Seek the light! But approach with care, and change course if you smell your wingtips burning. Light is for seeing, not dying.
Ultimately, the letter from the future conveys a future that we cannot begin to fathom:
You could say I am happy, that I feel good. You could say that I feel surpassing bliss. But these words are used to describe human experience. What I feel is as far beyond ordinary human feelings as my thoughts are beyond human thoughts. I wish I could show you what I have in mind. If only I could share one second of my conscious life with you! But that is impossible. Your container could not hold even a small splash of my joy, it is that great.

Planet Earth, Year 2050

"An important report on the world's ecosystems [the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment], says there is time to avert the worst consequences of global warming, if we start now."
Read more in EnviroHealth.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Fukuyama and the CybDem agenda

On page 81 of Our Posthuman Future: Consequences of the Biotechnology Revolution, Francis Fukuyama wrote:

"Nobody knows whether genetic engineering will one day become as cheap and accessible as sonograms and abortion. Much depends on what its benefits are assumed to be. The most common fear expressed by present-day bioethicists is that only the wealthy will have access to this kind of genetic technology. But if a biotechnology of the future produces, for example, a safe and effective way to genetically engineer more intelligent children, then the stakes would immediately be raised. Under this scenario it is entirely plausible that an advanced democratic welfare state would reenter the eugenics game, intervening this time not to prevent low IQ people from breeding, but to help genetically disadvantaged people raise their IQs and the IQs of their offspring. [This scenario has been suggested by libertarian Charles Murray. See "Deeper into the Brain", National Review 52 (2000): 46-49] It would be the state, under these circumstances, that would make sure that the technology became cheap and accessible to all. And, at that point, a population-level effect would very likely emerge."

Monday, January 23, 2006

Turning a Blind Eye to Wi-Fi

"Two decades ago, the chattering classes fretted about economic upheaval rising from Japan and the Asian Tigers. They feared an invasion of cars, microchips, and karaoke that would take away American jobs, take over U.S.-dominated industries, and shift cultural norms. In the 1990s, America responded with a boom in high technology and Hollywood exports. But a revolution is again brewing in places like Japan and South Korea. This time it's about "broadband" -- a technology that, in terms of powering economies, could be the 21st century equivalent of electricity. But rather than relive the jingoism of the 1980s, American policy makers would be wise to take a cue from the Asian innovators and implement new policies to close the digital divide at home and with the rest of the world." (Read more on the AlterNet)

Sunday, January 22, 2006

The Triumph of an Atheist Socialist Mom for President

"Michelle Bachelet has ended the male dominance of Chilean politics and showed how democratic pluralism is blossoming in the post-Pinochet era."