An essay by Dale Carrico on The Unbearable Stasis of ‘Accelerating Change’ has been praised by two of my favorite science fiction writers, Bruce Sterling and Charlie Stross. This does not change my opinion of Carrico’s “critique of Transhumanism” (more correctly, his critique of his own fictional straw-man portrait of transhumanists), which I find more and more static, tired, and boring. Also Greg Egan, another of my favorite science fiction writers, does not seem to have a very high opinion of transhumanists. In Zendegi, he introduces Nate Caplan, an extropian entrepreneur, health freak, Ayn Rand ultra-libertarian, borderline sociopath, cryonics and mind uploading enthusiast, and caricatural transhumanist cliché. When he first meets neuroscientist Nasim (one of the two main characters), Caplan introduces himself by saying: “My IQ is one hundred and sixty. I’m in perfect physical and mental health. And I can pay you half a million dollars right now.” Then he adds: “I have no lipid deficiencies that would lead to neurohistological abnormalities” and informs Nasim that he runs “Overpowering Falsehood dot com, [sounds familiar?], the number one site for rational thinking about the future.”"Sounds familiar?" Why, yes… yes, it does. Although Prisco goes on to say "Nate Caplan is a fictional caricature: he doesn’t exist," the point is, of course, that he seems familiar because everybody who devotes any sustained attention to the works of Robot Cultists like the transhumanoids, the singularitarians, the techno-immortalists, the nano-cornucopiasts, the digital-utopians, the greenwashing "geo-engineers" has had their fill, sometimes to a flabbergasting extent, of precisely these kinds of facile libertopianisms, suave eugenicisms, rampaging narcissisms, borderline sociopathies, reductionisms, techno-triumphalisms, gizmo-fetishisms, science fiction treated as science practice or science policy monomanias in their company. The reason the caricature rings true is because there is truth in it, the reason the cliche exists is because it has a foundation in reality, the reason this "sounds familiar" is because it is.
Of course, any subculture is going to have its oddball personalities, any cause is going to attract energetic but harmlessly weird adherents. I'm a lefty queer geek teaching philosophy at a San Francisco art school, I am hardly what you would call a normal person, and most of the people I like best are plenty strange. Although a lot of my critique of mainstream and superlative futurology has played out in the give and take of debates with flesh and blood people saying foolish or ignorant things to me, or in the form of readings of ridiculous arguments with dangerous implications that were published in the expectation that they would get public scrutiny, the fact is that my primary focus has always been on futurological discourse first of all, and its sociocultural formations (membership organizations, networks, campaigns, money-trails) only secondarily. My writing is satirical, it tends to zero in on the ridiculous and to ridicule it, and it is also playful at the level of the language itself, which I just happen to enjoy. But it is the furthest imaginable thing from frivolous or insubstantial or merely insulting. It is very interesting that Prisco claims that I am torching a straw man I denominate "transhumanism," as if there were some more "reasonable transhumanism" preoccupied with how nanobots are going to transform humans into comic book superheroes and make them rich beyond the dreams of avarice before their information-selves are "uploaded" into virtual heaven under the supervision of a history-ending friendly superintelligent Robot God.
Carrico is a Grand Master of straw man arguments, and a consummate liar who always distorts what his “targets” really say. A typical discussion with him goes like this:What is delightful about this passage is that it is entirely invented by Prisco and hence at best seems to be an example of precisely the sort of misbehavior he is presumably castigating me for. He doesn't say that this is literally something I have ever said but that it is merely "typical" of me. Now, to be honest, I don't think that the first exchanges he is assigning to me are even remotely typical of my writing. Needless to say, for one thing, there already are green and blue roses (I worked in a garden center with a florist refrigerator in the back in high school, you know), and actually I have explicitly and repeatedly argued against those who deploy the word "natural" to police conformity to their parochial values. It is true that I often speak of finitude (human error-proneness, vulnerability, mortality) and the need to take it into account and be wary of irrational denialisms about these limits which usually originate in fear and eventuate in harm. And I also do talk a lot about interconnectedness, especially when I am criticizing people who want to take personal credit for collective achievements. And I do think many specific futurological discourses function to reinforce the assumptions, aspirations, and self-serving rationalizations of neoliberal and consumer and extractive-industrial culture. I also think it is hard to pretend, as Prisco seems to want to do, that saying these sorts of things is tantamount to calling people "assholes" and "morons" over and over again. It is intriguing that he calls these efforts at sustained discourse and analysis and argument "logorrhea" or "diarrhea of the mouth." Very Serious! By the way, if you follow the link he provides to offer "evidence" of my misbehavior you will be taken, I kid you not, to an article not of mine but of his, which includes, word for word this very same passage I have quoted, his fantasy of a "typical exchange" with me. Again, Very Serious! Very Serious, indeed. Honestly, is it any wonder that I ridicule this sort of thing?
DC: Everyone knows that roses are pink, but Robot Cultist X says that roses are green.
X: I am sorry, but I never said that roses are green.
DC: Yes you did, you moron, you and your Robot Cultist friends.
X: I never said that roses are green and I challenge you to find an actual quote, even just one. I have said that most roses are pink or red, but many roses are white or yellow, and some roses have other colors.
DC: Fuck you, asshole. Perhaps you never said that roses are green, but you Robot Cultists want to genetically engineer green and blue roses, and this goes against the finitude and interconnectedness of Nature, and your discourse reinforces the industrial-military-libertropian complex, and… (pages and pages of logorrhea).
Of course, after a few exchanges like this, X stops paying attention and moves on. Please see this article for answers to Dale’s questions to his readers about his arguments and style.
Prisco declares: "Carrico’s 'arguments' boil down to 'You are a filthy Robot Cultist, so you are not qualified to have opinions on serious political issues.'" Just let me say that I do not believe this, I do not believe I have ever argued this. It's hard to know what to say in the face of this kind of breathtaking statement. My first impulse is to make a joke and laugh it off, but clearly Prisco doesn't take too kindly to levity. And so, I suppose I will simply challenge anybody to find a version of this claim in any of my writings anywhere.
In what I would take to be a fairly characteristic formulation, I have indeed said that transhumanist and other superlative futurological discourses tend
One: To be hyperbolically unrealistic and sensationalist in ways that derange urgently necessary public deliberation about technoscience issues,This passage, by the way, is from five years ago and was prompted by a piece by none other than Giulio Prisco. Few transhumanists would affirm these as their conscious or official doctrine, of course. The point is to elaborate consequences and entailments of their discourse that most do not immediately grasp, the better to help people who are perplexed by futurology to understand it and its appeal and its impact, to help the credulous or unwary who might otherwise embrace the discourse to think twice about doing so, and even, possibly, activate some wholesome skepticism within futurological sub(cult)ures to undermine what is dangerous in what they are doing and extricate the occasional True Believer from thrall. Robot Cultists will disagree with my observations and conclusions about their beliefs but that actually doesn't mean I am simply barking out ad hominem attacks willy-nilly much though they would like to pretend otherwise. Transhumanists are making arguments in public, inviting scrutiny, and they cannot declare those who disagree with them or who think they are dangerous and say why or even who think them ridiculous and ridicule them for it are engaging in hate crimes against an ethnic minority in need of protection because of its marginality. Most of the futurists I am arguing with are educated, privileged, and secure, and most are aware at some level that their views are marginal in their extremity and surely expect that they will invite disagreements (though many may not believe sustained intelligent disagreement with them is possible).
Two: To exacerbate irrational fears and fantasies about agency typically activated in any case by discussions of technology, especially dreams of omnipotence and nightmares of impotence,
Three: To lend themselves to parochial moralizing social forms and identity-based political models that tend to be psychologically harmful and dangerously anti-democratizing,
Four: To facilitate elitist, alarmist, escapist, reductionist attitudes and rhetoric especially well suited to incumbent interests and anti-democratic politics, whatever the professed politics of those who advocate them, and
Five: To represent in their Superlative extremity a clarifying and symptomatic expression of the basic irrationality and authoritarianism of prevailing discourses of "Global Development" and "Technoscientific Progress" in an era of neoliberal and neoconservative politics.
There is much more that I think Prisco's response gets terribly wrong, but I don't think nit-picking it will be very interesting to anybody. I am sure I could be induced to indulge in still closer readings in the Moot. As for Giulio Prisco himself, I will leave it to the readers of my work and of his to decide for themselves who is making "straw man" arguments here, who is offering up substantive arguments here, who is being insulting here, and just who, if anybody, is being the asshole. What I will leave you with is the reminder that Giulio Prisco is not some random loon, but a longstanding eminence in transhumanoid and techno-immortalist sub(cult)ures, widely published and seriously discussed by figures taken seriously (to the extent that any of them are) in more mainstream pop-tech and futurological precincts, a founder and officer of many transhumanoid publications and organizations, to this day. I leave the implications as an exercise for the reader.