Every technology requires a physical infrastructure in order to operate. But this infrastructure depends on social institutions, which are frequently subject to breakdown. I made this point when I bumped into some ardent advocates of cryonic suspension in California in the 1980s. How long would it take to develop the technologies that were needed to resurrect frozen cadavers as living organisms, I wondered. Not much more than a century, I was told. I asked these techno-futurists to consider the events of the past hundred years or so – a devastating civil war and two world wars, a ruinous stock-market crash and the Great Depression, for example. Given this history, how could they be confident that their refrigerated cadavers would remain intact for another century? The companies that stored them would surely go bust, wars and civil disturbances would lead to power failures, and the legal system that protected the cadavers could disappear. The United States might no longer exist in a recognisable form. The cryonicists looked at me blankly. These were scenarios that they had not considered and could not process. Such upheavals might have happened in the past, but the future was going to be quite different. For these believers in technological resurrection, American society was already immortal.
Another day, another minor mention of immortalism in the mainstream media; this one’s rare in that it mentions the really important element of the business model of Alcor and other such cryogenics “service providers”:
The majority of patients choose to take out life insurance policies naming Alcor or the Cryonics Institute as their beneficiary.
Read that again. Let the implications sink in. Alcor’s business model involves encouraging people to bequeath a significant chunk of their estate against an ill-defined promise with little or no scientific foundations, to possibly be delivered upon at an indeterminate date in the future.
If it were only wealthy SilVal vencaps and other powerbros who were foolish enough to quaff this particular flavour of snake-oil, I’d have few tears to shed; any successful con-artist knows that the greedy and vain are the easiest targets to take. But the desperate are also easy targets, and quackery is always drawn to the scent of sickrooms; it takes a very special sort of grasping scumbag to bottle your hopes and sell them back to you.
I try to speak to Max More, but no interview is forthcoming despite several emails and calls.
The mightily monikered More is wise enough to not submit to interviews which are likely to not picture Alcor in its best light — and what astute businessman would do otherwise? But we need not be left guessing as to the flavours of philosophy that most made their mark on More during his stint reading PPE at Oxford, as his website burgeons with enlightening screeds that offer an insight into the man behind the elaborate self-made myth. I recommend starting with the soi-disant Proactionary Principle, which is also a cornerstone of transhumanist doctrine. Here’s a wee taster:
Whereas the precautionary principle is often used to take an absolutist stand against an activity, the Proactionary Principle allows for handling mixed effects through compensation and remediation instead of prohibition.
The core project of capital-T Transhumanism is only ostensibly about life extension and immortality; its true purpose is as a glossy conceptual package of future-glossed vanity-bait designed to encourage wealthy spoiled assholes to argue for massive programs of further economic and industrial deregulation. And while I’m not greatly fussed about the fates of fools who’d fall for this, the ultimate suit of emperor’s new clothes, I retain the same healthy respect for its tailor that I reserve for another species equipped with a forked tongue. To paraphrase another libertarian fantasist:
People will believe anything you tell them, provided they want it to be true, or fear that it already is.
To observe that this is true is pessimism; to monetise it is cynicism, pure and simple.
I can finally fully announce some very agreeable publications news: my story “Los Piratas del Mar de Plastico” appears in this year’s Twelve Tomorrows, which is MIT Technology Review‘s annual all-fiction special. (On Stateside newsstands in August, I believe — though I know next to nothing about UK/Europe/global availability. You can sign up on that page to be alerted when copies go on sale, though.)
It’s an astonishing list of names to see myself alongside, and no mistake: Bruce Sterling (who took the editorial chair, and shoulders any blame for inviting yours truly to play alongside the grown-ups), William Gibson, Lauren Beukes, Pat Cadigan, Chris Brown (no, not that Chris Brown), Cory Doctorow, Warren Ellis. Receiving the invitation to contribute prompted the most intense burst of Imposter Syndrome I think I’ve ever had; it’s still not quite faded away, either.
Like most of my writing (yeah, yeah, I know), “Los Piratas… ” is not amenable to easy “what’s it about?” summary; that said, if you’ve read Keller Easterling’s Enduring Innocence, you’ll understand the choice of location (and the title ). As usual, I ended up trying to cram a novel’s worth of plot and ideas into a short story, and I’d have loved to have let it stretch out to novella length by expanding the aftermath section, which is necessarily summarised in broad strokes. But it was always intended as something of a polemic, and sometimes literary concerns have to take the back-seat when you’ve got a particular something to say to a particular audience. All that remains is to see how the audience reacts, I guess…
… and I expect I’ll get to find out at LonCon3 next month. (See? That’s how us pros make a segue, y’all.)
At the moment, it looks like I’ll be haunting the ExCel Centre (and, presumably, other significantly less monstrous venues in the same locale) in London from early afternoon Friday 15th August until the afternoon of Monday 18th. I’m on a handful of panels and giving a paper on the academic track, so if you want to come heckle a cyberhippy, these are the dates your diary needs:
- Saturday 12:00 – 13:30, Capital Suite 15 (ExCeL): “Body Modification – From Decoration to Medication and Augmentation”
“From piercings and tattoos to laser eye surgery, we now have a world where decorative or voluntary medical body modifications are common. Modifications that add to our capabilities are starting eg. magnets implanted in fingers provide a magnetic sense. What more is coming? Zoom lenses for eyes? Enhanced muscles? Who is going to be the first with these and why, and will anybody want to install Microsoft Windows for brains?”
[Justina Robson (M), Paul Graham Raven, Jude Roberts, Frauke Uhlenbruch; no prizes for guessing how I ended up on this one]
- Saturday 16:30 – 18:00, Capital Suite 15 (ExCeL): “50 Years After: Asimov predicts 2014 World’s Fair”
“In 1964, Asimov wrote a set of predictions for the 2014 World’s Fair. What did he predict, what did he get right and wrong, what did he say that was useful, and what did he miss completely?”
[Gerry Webb (M), Madeline Ashby, Stephen Foulger, Paul Graham Raven, Ben Yalow; I’m guessing this’ll be a bring-some-popcorn type of panel.]
- Sunday 09:30 – 11:00, Capital Suite 6 (ExCeL): “Science Fiction from the Outside (academic track)”
“Three academics each give a 15 minute presentation. This is followed by a jointly held 30 minute discussion with the audience.”
Dan Smith, “Science Fiction and Outsider Art”
Paul Raven, “The rhetorics of futurity: scenarios, design fiction, prototypes, and other evaporated modalities of science fiction”
Andrew Ferguson, “Zombies, Language, and Chaos”
[John Kessel (M), Paul Graham Raven, Dr. Dan Smith, Andrew Ferguson; one for the inside-baseball crowd only, probably.]
- Sunday 12:00 – 13:30, Capital Suite 16 (ExCeL): “Speculative Design”
“Assuming a new technology, like synthetic biology, works, what products might come out of it? Speculative design is both a new artistic approach and a way of looking at problems and issues in a different way.”
[Gary Ehrlich (M), Nic Clear, Scott Lefton, Paul Graham Raven, Sarah Demb; these are mostly new names for me, so I’m hoping to learn new things on this one.]
I’m sure I’ll attend a fair few other panels and things, too, but mostly I’m planning to keep my schedule open and flexible; I’ve done enough cons now to know how best to make them work for me, and it turns out that running around with a timetable isn’t it. Very much looking forward to this rare opportunity to see some long-term Stateside friends and colleagues in the flesh; if you’re one of them (or, indeed, one of anyone), do drop me a line so we can arrange to meet.
Otherwise, the best way to locate me on the fly will probably involve triangulating between Twitter, the bar, and the smoking area. See you there? Good.
One of the reliable bright lights in the gloom of my January is the annual Bruce Sterling and Jon Lebkowsky show, a.k.a. their State of the World conflab at The Well. All sorts of chewy futurism and near-field hindsight going on, as always, but sometimes it’s a minor aside that snags my mind, like this little zap at transhumanism:
“… you’re never going to put some magic cyberdevice inside your human body that has no human political and economic interests within its hardware and software. All human artifacts, below the skin or above them, are frozen social relationships. If you’re somehow burningly keen to consume a thing like that, you’d better, as William Burroughs liked to put it, have a look at the end of the fork.”
The great joy of my first semester of my PhD has been being formally introduced to the basics of sociological theory, and thus discovering that a lot of the woolly notions I’d come to independently have been thought far more thoroughly and comprehensively before, by smart people who gave those ideas proper names. Through this lens it’s even more apparent than before that the echoing lacuna at the heart of Movement Transhumanism — the canonical ‘philosophy’ expounded by Dr Max Biggerbetterfastermore and friends, rather than the more personal morphological meddlings of the grinders and back-alley self-modders — is the notion of any system of social relations beyond the mechanisms of soi-disant anarchocapitalist “free market” economics.
If nothing else, it goes some way to explaining the overlap between MT and the Neoreactionaries: both seem to assume that inconvenient truths might be moved aside by merit of resetting the sociopolitical clock to a time before anyone had formulated them. Not just a river in Egypt, eh?
Commandante Sterling, commenting on the launch of new R U Sirius-edited pop-transhumanism magazine h+:
(((I’ve never been a big hippiefied ’60s nostalgist, but after all we’ve been through lately, to have the *1990s* back… would that rock, or what?)))
OMG, yes it would.
Anyone who knows me offline will confirm that I’ve been longing for it for about the last seven years – musically, politically and culturally, we need to drag ourselves out of this cocaine-crazed blind-rat rerun of the eighties before it chokes us all with faux-ironic polkadot day-glo and its utter lack of introspection, morals and restraint.
Plus, my haircut will briefly be fashionable again. w00t!
[ 1 – Or, more accurately, lack thereof. ]