Tag Archives: illusion

a defiant assertion of the individual against its own impermanence

Doug Rushkoff knows the score:

Ironically, transhumanism is less about embracing the future than fixing the human experience as it is today. Medical and life extension interventions seek only to preserve the person who is alive right now. Cryonics seeks to freeze the human form in its current state in order to be reanimated in the future. Uploading one’s mind simply transfers the human brain, or a perfect clone of it, as is, into a more durable substrate.

In some ways, transhumanism is a reactionary response to the sorts of changes inherent in nature, a defiant assertion of the individual against its own impermanence. The cycles of life are understood not as opportunities to learn or let go, but as inconveniences to ignore or overcome. We do not have to live with the consequences of our own actions. There’s an app for that.

There’s a missing point here, though, which is that the “we” of the transhumanist is always an in-group “we”, even if only implicitly—that comes most often, I think, from an underexamination of the rhetoric by the majority of folk who identify with the movement. However, it’s quite clear and explicit in the actual writings of its intellectual leading lights, whose commitment to free markets and eugenics is replete with all the dogwhistles you could ask for. If you’re not on Team Immortality, then you’re just a walking organ farm, a store of tradeable fragments of genetic value.

But a double thumbs-up for Rushkoff noting the point about avoiding the consequences of one’s actions, which for my money is rooted in the failure of transhumanists to understand their always-already privileged cyborg status, courtesy of the infrastructural metasystem. I’ve been reading (finally!) Anna Tsing’s magisterial The Mushroom at the End of the World this week, and she illustrates the point very clearly: the role of supply chains, which extended the logic of the earlier national / regional infrastructures to a global scale (and in the process operationalised an off-the-radar mode of accumulation) is—quite deliberately—the effacement of consequences (whether environmental or social, if that’s a distinction you want to make) and the externalisation of risk (under which category we can file pollution and emissions).

So, once more, for the avoidance of doubt: transhumanism is a solutionist cult that is not even congizant of that which it fetishises, an unneeded and incoherent answer to the question “what can you offer the man who already has literally everything?” There is far less to fear from its prestidigitatory promises of technological uplift than there is to fear from the political projects being built backstage.

(I know there are some readers of this blog who identify as transhumanists, but who reject those political projects explicitly and vocally. I humbly offer that those people, and others like them, need a different name for their political identity; while it may once have been more contested, transhumanism is a toxic brand, and far beyond rescue. Posthumanism has always been the leftward path taken from the same starting concepts; regrettably, perhaps, it’s heretofore been more a academic-theoretical position than a movement. But it’s never too late to change that! If you grok Haraway, for example, I’d argue you’re a posthumanist already.)

technologies that place me in a seemingly Promethean position: regardless power, regardless freedom and the desire for excession

More newsletter cribbing, this time from the redoubtable L M Sacasas. Like so much material being produced at the moment, this piece is mostly about the pandemic, and specifically the USian response (or lack thereof); but there’s stuff in here that has broader application, and some themes which VCTB veterans will recognise as favourites of mine. After an opening bit about some inadvertently ironic scare-quotes around the word “freedom” in a store-door chest-thumping sign, we get to this:

Albert Borgmann, whose concept of focal practices I discussed last time, also gave us the apt phrase “regardless power” to describe the kind of power granted by techno-scientific knowledge and deployed with little or no regard for consequences. Such regardless power takes no account of the integrity of an ecosystem or the intangible goods inherent in existing social structures. It does not stop to consider what it might be good to do; it knows no reason why one ought not to do what one can do. So, likewise, we might speak of regardless freedom, freedom exercised with little or no regard for those with whom we share the world.

Regardless power and regardless freedom are not unrelated. Their pedigree may be traced to the early modern period, and their relationship may be described as symbiotic or dialectical. The growing capacity for regardless power makes the idea of regardless freedom plausible. The ideal of regardless freedom fuels the demand for regardless power. If I believe that I have the right to do whatever I please, I will take up the technology that allows me to do so (or at least appears to). If I habitually relate to the world through technologies that place me in a seemingly Promethean position, then I will be tempted to assume that I can and ought to do whatever I please.

Sacasas has mentioned Borgmann a fair bit since I first started reading him, to the extent that I sought out Borgmann’s best-known book (which, of course, I have yet to read). But Sacasas’s use of these terms is enough for now, particularly the notion of “regardless power”. I often talk about the self-effacement of infrastructure, by which I mean the way in which disguising or obscuring or displacing the consequences of its own extractive and distributive function is a fundamental part of what the infrastructural metasystem does. That last sentence of Sacasas’s in the blockquote above is a gloriously poetic way of making the same point.

That would have been enough to be worthy of note, but Sacasas next takes a detour through magic, with Mumford and C S Lewis as his guides. The former describes magic as “the bridge that united fantasy with technology: the dream of power with the engines of fulfilment” [my emphasis]; the latter noted that:

For the wise men of old the cardinal problem had been how to conform the soul to reality, and the solution had been knowledge, self-discipline, and virtue. For magic and applied science alike the problem is how to subdue reality to the wishes of men: the solution is a technique.

The solution is a technique! Until, eventually, technique more broadly is the solution. Well, yes. Both of these riffs combined can clearly walk alongside my own arguments about infrastructure as a magic trick, in the Clarke’s-Third-Law sense of the term—magic as in illusion, prestidigitation, magic as apparent provision ex nihilo. Magic as in rabbits from hats.

Sacasas returns to the pandemic, and in so doing makes another point which I think is more generally applicable:

… there was always going to be some debate about how to proceed. To think otherwise is to fall into the trap of believing that one can resolve essentially human problems by technical means. A great deal of the enthusiasm currently emanating from tech circles seems to reflect the persistence of misguided belief. Coronavirus pandemic got you down? There’s an app for that!

[…]

The poles of our response, then, can be characterized as tending toward regardless freedom on the one end and regardless power on the other. Regardless power here connoting a willingness to submit all human considerations to techno-scientific expertise without consideration for the intractable and recalcitrant realities of human society. Or, to put it otherwise, the tendency to assume that there must be a technically correct method (or technique) by which to resolve the crisis, one which must be implemented at all costs without any regard for the full swath of human consequences.

Regardless freedom, of course, is exemplified by (what I must hope is) the rare belief that being required to wear a face covering in public spaces is a grievous assault on one’s liberty. It assumes that my liberty of action must not be constrained by any consideration beyond the realization of my own desires and my own self-interest narrowly conceived.

This opposition is made all the worse because the necessary moral-political debate cannot in fact happen, not under our present condition. Our present condition defined both by the consequences of the digital information sphere and the lack of a broadly shared moral framework within which meaningful debate can unfold.

I part ways with Sacasas a bit in this last paragraph, because I tend to believe that there is a shared moral framework, just one that was always-already riven with a fundamental contradiction that the pandemic has made it impossible to unsee. (Though the extent to which we’re performatively poking our own eyes out to justify our blindness would be comedic if it weren’t so tragic; this is the point I was trying to make a while back in that piece about bioethics.) And also because he’s now framing it as a simple opposition between two poles, rather than the dialectic that he earlier suggested it might be: I’m more in sympathy with that dialectical framing, because it fits with my sense that the current vibe of of epistemic collapse is caused by the struggle of powerful networks to find a workable synthesis that retains a maximal amount of their own privilege, and to impose it on everyone else.

But lurking behind the pandemic-focussed point here is the underlying argument that “regardless freedom” is intimately related to “regardless power”, accompanied by a clear connection between that dyad and the seemingly magical affordances of infrastructural systems. “The ideal of regardless freedom fuels the demand for regardless power.” That’s the the libidinal urge for excession in the fufilment of practices, there, being engendered by the very systems which make excession conceivable in the first place… for once you’ve been shown that you can (seemingly) get something to appear as if from nowhere, with (seemingly) minimal costs or consequences, then you will start to wonder what else might be made more magical in much the same way.