The unbearable stasis of Dale Carrico’s critique of fictional straw-man transhumanists

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.”

Nasim is a researcher working at the Human Connectome project, described by Egan at more or less the current development stage, perhaps a bit more advanced, and Caplan hopes that she can upload him to cyberspace in a short ten years. Nasim points out, correctly, that this is a totally unrealistic hope.

Now: Nate Caplan is a fictional caricature: he doesn’t exist, and he is not even meant as a realistic character. I have met some monomaniac transhumanists with an inflated opinion of their intelligence and worth, but Caplan is far too extreme for a believable character. He is just a caricature of two or three persons who used to post to the Extropians mailing list in the 90s. Bruce Sterling, Charlie Stross, and Greg Egan used to read the Extropian list in the 90s, and their impression is frozen at that time. Too bad, but they are still among my favorite science fiction writers, they don’t make fools of themselves by saying that the technologies they describe in their novels are impossible, and I will continue to avidly read their books. They don’t like us transhumanists, but we love them in return.

Dale Carrico, he should know better. He was a frequent participant and contributor to transhumanist mailing lists until only a few years ago, and many transhumanists including me have spent wasted a lot of time discussing with him.

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:
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.

Even when a transhumanist publicly agrees with him on social or political issues unrelated to transhumanism, Dale replies with mockery and insults (take a look at this exchange). When I remind him that I consider long term speculative visions and here-and-now real-world actions as separate, not overlapping spheres of life, he replies: “Yeah, yeah, mild mannered advocate for healthy drinking water in overexploited regions of the world by day, radical techno-immortalist by night! How could anyone imagine one’s attitudes in the one sphere could possibly impact one’s arguments, interests, priorities in the other? Separate, but no doubt equal, eh, your worldly concerns as against your superlative ones? Like most people of fundamentalist faith, your superlative aspirations are the stained-window coloring your everyday inhabitation of the world.”

This is true: my superlative aspirations are the stained-window coloring my everyday inhabitation of the world. So what? I am happy to see the world in beautiful colors instead of black and white, and the superlative colors have nothing to do with my actual positions on actual, proximate social or political issues. In fact, I often agree with Dale on real issues, which seems to upset him a lot (see the example above). Like most people of fundamentalist faith, he is protective of “his” ideological territory against persons he disapproves of, even when they agree with him on real, specific points.

This is typical of the dullest, totalitarian, thought-policing left. For example, homosexuals were often denied membership or expelled from communist parties. This sounds odd, because it is difficult to see what sexual preferences have to do with political preferences and skills (answer: nothing), but homosexuals were consistently thrown out of the American Communist Party when their orientation was discovered.

Similarly, Carrico’s “arguments” boil down to “You are a filthy Robot Cultist, so you are not qualified to have opinions on serious political issues.” These are the same “arguments” often used by those homophobes who say “You are a filthy gay, so you are not qualified to have opinions on serious political issues,” so they are quite surreal when they come from a gay rights activist like Carrico.

Of course Dale considers this last observation as “idiotic, deceptive, and weird” but I would like to know what (he thinks) the difference is. Because I cannot see any. @Dale, that was a question. Insult me as much as you like, but please don’t evade my question: why is my analogy idiotic, deceptive, and weird?

To conclude with a more positive note, Dale recently said in an occasional moment of sanity: ” I am perfectly content to affirm, for example, that there are technoscientifically literate people of faith who embrace the secular separation of church and state and who struggle for social justice and who are perfectly lovely, reasonable people. Probably that includes at least some Robot Cultists in their transhumanoid, singularitarian, and techno-immortalist faiths as well, although I wonder if they really can have thought about their position very clearly,” which is a reasonable and constructive attitude.

  • Khannea Suntzu

    Wow. One the one hand we have the randian mental deficient people in the far right Libertarian Diamandite community (by why I do not suggest that Peter Diamandis is one of the idiots following him – far from it) and on the other hand we have the somewhat narrow-focus critics like Dale Carrico and some science fiction writers such as Sterling and Stross.

    Mind you, I find Dale funny, as I would find this lad (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i5tWT6I1GvY&feature=related) slightly amusing. I however do think that Dale is just suffering from extreme “jilted lover” syndrome, after the IEET threw his ass on the street. As for Bruce and Charles – I love these and admire guys, but I just think they “are scoring rationality points” by distancing themselves from the over ravid lunatic hyper-techno-utopians in the H+ community.

    The problem is that idealist techno-progressives such as Giulio and myself (both recovering transhumanists I suppose) are constantly alienated by these critics, who are routinely throwing away whole harvests of babies with the bath water. I am not a utopian. I do not think radical technological advancements and progress will bring about a “rapture of the nerd” paradise. I do not think a Singularity will be all fun and games.

    I do however think we fucking need these technologies, as quickly as possible, to have humanity have at least something approximating a fighting chance. In other words – with 10 billion humans on this planet. With crisis of overconsumption. With a crisis of environmental collapse. With a crisis of water scarcity. With peak oil. With terrorism. With too many pensioners. With massive unemployment. With insane and incompetent governance. etc. etc. etc. WE NEED radically advanced technology.

    We as a species are dying. We are failing. We need solutions. Yet for some reason I do not see the utopialuddites never take this in to consideration. I don’t want Utopia. Someone else’s (libertarian) Utopia is my Dante’s fucking inferno, most likely. I just want to be around alive in a few decades, with teeth in my mouth and without radioactive cesium induced bone cancer. Can we have a little aspiration left, like *please* ?

    Too much to ask?

  • Giulio Prisco

    Wow the video is cool!

    Correction: I am not a “recovering transhumanist” but a card carrying, unrepentant, radically visionary in-your-face transhumanist who loves to contemplate a wonderful cosmic future with uploaded software-based cyber angels and post-biological Exes (hat tip Moravec) roaming the universe as immortal God-like entities.

    This has always been my interpretation of transhumanism (these days I prefer the term Cosmism). I never believed that “superlative technologies” will materialize in time for me to benefit. But materialize they will, and I feel happy for future generations. I will get my brain preserved, and who knows what may happen, I may even wake up in a better place. Or, perhaps, I will be resurrected by future cosmic engineers by means of Sir Arthur Clarke’s future magic. Who knows.

    How does this worldview influence my political choices? Simple answer, it doesn’t. Most of the times I vote for the same political parties that you and Dale (I guess) support, and express similar opinions in policy discussions. This should be enough to show that Dale’s rants are, pardon my Latin, total bullshit.

    My worldview does provide me with a nice stained-window to see the world in beautiful colors (as Dale says). I consider this as my own personal aesthetic sphere, and I don’t welcome intrusions. Feel free to look at the world from your own stained-window (everybody has one, or more than one), and I will feel free to look at the world from mine. Dale should, I believe, read again the passage that he wrote a few days ago (last quote in the text above).

  • Khannea Suntzu

    Mhurrrrr :)

  • Giulio Prisco

    @K: in English?

  • I respond here.

  • Giulio Prisco

    @Dale – thanks, I will reply in a few hours (using phone now and this will require some typing).

  • Giulio Prisco

    @Dale

    Re “”Sounds familiar?” Why, yes… yes, it does.”

    Interesting how omitting a link in a quote can totally distort its meaning. What I wrote is: “Overpowering Falsehood dot com, [sounds familiar? (with a link to http://www.overcomingbias.com/)]”

    The link should make it evident that I am just saying that “Overpowering Falsehood dot com” is probably intended as a parody of “Overcoming Bias dot com”. I am not saying that my good friend Robin Hanson is a Nate Caplan, and I am not saying that Nate Caplan sounds familiar.

    The original meaning of this totally distorted quote is that, no, I don’t know Nate Caplan, I don’t wish to know him because I don’t think he is a nice person, and he doesn’t sound familiar. To be honest, I must admit to knowing one or two transhumanists who, on occasions, may vaguely sound like Caplan, but I don’t think they are representative. This may be what you think, but it is not what I think, and it is not what I said, so please don’t make me say it.

    Re “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.”

    Saying these sorts of things is not tantamount to calling people “assholes” and “morons,” but you do call people “assholes” and “morons” over and over again. You called me and many of my friends “idiots” more times than I can remember (on your blog there is even a post titled “Giulio Prisco May Be One of the Most Idiotic People Alive”) plus other insults like “batshit crazy” and some that I had to look in a dictionary.

    Re “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.”

    I enjoy it too. But then why do you complain if others do the same? My example with green roses and assholes is also meant as a playful caricature. By the way, I have never seen a green rose, so I picked what I thought of as a unlikely color.

    I have nothing against playfulness, levity, caricature, and even occasional insults, which often make things more interesting and fun to read. I have a lot of fun reading what you write about me, and I have a lot of fun replying in tone. It goes without saying that, if you call me an idiot, I will probably call you an idiot in return.

    Re “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.”

    If you say so, I guess I should believe you. Perhaps I should be more precise: I have the impression that you deny transhumanists the right to consider themselves members of the same political community that you consider yourself a member of, based not on their actual positions on political/social issues (which at times are in perfect agreement with your own positions), but based only on their _totally unrelated_ transhumanist convictions. The analogy that I made is: “For example, homosexuals were often denied membership or expelled from communist parties. This sounds odd, because it is difficult to see what sexual preferences have to do with political preferences and skills (answer: nothing), but homosexuals were consistently thrown out of the American Communist Party when their orientation was discovered.” I have the impression that this analogy is correct.

    I agree with you about transhumanism being more about soft aesthetics than about hard rationality and science (we are really science fiction fans), and transhumanist aesthetics being but an alternative formulation of religious aesthetics. “Religious epiphany” is the only way I can describe the powerful feelings that I had reading Arthur C. Clarke when I was a child. I was emotionally hooked for life, and even more after reading Moravec and the Extropy mailing list in the 90s. I openly and unambiguously affirm that I interpret transhumanism as a religion.

    But religious belief is not strongly correlated with political positions. You said it yourself recently: “I am perfectly content to affirm, for example, that there are technoscientifically literate people of faith who embrace the secular separation of church and state and who struggle for social justice and who are perfectly lovely, reasonable people.”

    I am very happy to hear this and I think that, at least for consistency, you should extend the same affirmation to transhumanists. I see that you do, in the same sentence: “Probably that includes at least some Robot Cultists in their transhumanoid, singularitarian, and techno-immortalist faiths as well, although I wonder if they really can have thought about their position very clearly.” This is what I want to hear, but I am not sure if you really mean it.

  • Khannea Suntzu

    Mhurrr has become a phonal intonation, somewhat like made by a rumbling feline, depicting an emotion of moderate frustration, confusion or complacency.

    So anytime someone says something that is more than a little emotionally arousing to me, I have come to make this sound of *Mhurrrrrr* indicating I am not sure (yet) on how to respond.

    Hmm I notice you and DC are still playing ping pong?

  • Giulio Prisco

    @Khannea re “Hmm I notice you and DC are still playing ping pong?”

    Yeah, let’s do another couple of rounds. I will copy the comment above to his blog.

  • You say I misquote you, possibly mischievously, that you only thought one small detail (the name of a website) was actually familiar in your reading of Egan’s parody, and not the whole transhumanoid caricature that anybody else would find similarly familiar? M’kay. You quote my statement that I write satirically and then say, yeah, me too? M’kay. You say I deny you are a reliably progressive political ally though you want to be construed as one, despite my belief, for which I provide reasons, that your views have consequences injurious to that politics — fully granting you may not grasp these or intend them, but finding them just the same — and you consider this a form of meanspiritedness rather than a principled difference? M’kay. If your best effort is “I know you are then what am I,” then I am quite happy to leave the last word to you.

  • Giulio Prisco

    @Dale – If that is your interpretation of my post, then I am happy to have the last word, and you know what it is.

    Re “my belief, for which I provide reasons, that your views have consequences injurious to that politics — fully granting you may not grasp these or intend them”

    I think I do grasp/intend your reasons. I just don’t agree.

  • Mark Plus

    The left has to acknowledge its own burden of foolish transhumanist utopianism from a century ago, as I pointed out elsewhere with a famous quote by Leon Trotsky. Unfortunately that sort of transhumanism led to mass human slaughter in the quest to create New Soviet Men and similar fantasies of secular transcendence. The Western version in the 21st Century by contrast hasn’t killed anyone that I know of, though it has wasted the time and cognitive resources of people who might otherwise do something productive with their lives.

    But in general I agree with much of Carrico’s criticism of the current sterile and tedious transhumanist scene. Transhumanism lacks a basis in, you know, REALITY, and as a result it lacks staying power, as we can see from the short shelf-life of transhumanist celebrities. I can remember when FM-2030, Robert Anton Wilson and Timothy Leary had an older generation of transhumanists hanging on to their every word. Today you could probably find youngsters at these transhumanist gatherings who don’t recognize their names. Transhumanists themselves also have short attention spans, since most of them cycle through transhumanism and then out again as the middle-aged reality principle (aging and mortality) asserts itself.

    And, ironically, some of today’s transhumanist celebrities, like Tyler Cowen, Peter Thiel and Neal Stephenson, have argued recently that most fields of engineering, apart from computing, have effectively stagnated or even become prohibited (e.g., nuclear engineering) since 1970. The stagnation trend undercuts the entire premise of transhumanism that we live in an alleged era of “accelerating technologies.”

  • Giulio Prisco

    @Mark re “The stagnation trend undercuts the entire premise of transhumanism that we live in an alleged era of “accelerating technologies.””

    I never thought that technology accelerates itself. It is accelerated — or decelerated — by people.

    In the 60s every kid wanted to be an astronaut and a scientist. Many of those kids studied science and engineering, and when the space program died they went on to invent the Internet, cell phones, biotech and most of modern technology.

    What do today’s kids want to be? Not astronauts or scientists I fear.

    The most important investment that a society can make, is in what makes kids dream.