Tag Archives: posthumanism

epistemic humility vs. “the engineer’s disease”

This post is prompted in part by a post by Cennydd Bowles, in which he riff on Nathan Ballantyne’s notion of epistemic trespass. Reading it reminded me of a term I’ve seen frequently, most often on MetaFilter, where it has been part of the lexiconic furniture for some time. An ask-the-hive-mind entry on that site traces the notion of “the engineer’s disease” back to 2002, so it’s plausibly an internet-era coining—which, interestingly, means it’s a term critical of engineering which emerged during what might be seen as the peak of engineering’s cultural hegemony, and thus in hindsight a weak signal of sorts.

The engineer’s disease is related to (and perhaps subsumed by, if not subsuming of, the briefly better known solutionism); here’s a description from that MeFi page:

engineers and other technical folks assuming their technical knowledge of systems (usually computer, mechanical/electrical) gives them expertise in solving other complex issues

Very much a lay precursor to Ballantyne’s trespass, then, but the concept is much older than the term. As someone else in the MeFi thread points out, Vonnegut’s Player Piano (1952) is a satire of “Engineer’s Disease writ large”, as they illustrate with a pithy quote from the novel which immediately brought me back to the experience of reading it:

“If only it weren’t for the people, the goddamned people,” said Finnerty, “always getting tangled up in the machinery. If it weren’t for them, earth would be an engineer’s paradise.”

Bowles notes that epistemic trespass is ubiquitous in the public-intellectual sphere, and (rightly, I think) connects it to the capitalist imperatives that power the hot-take attention economy, albeit using kinder words than I have chosen. But he also notes its particular prevalence in the tech scene, broadly conceived, and his explanation for it seems plausible, particularly given his own identification with that scene:

Dabbling got many of us here in the first place, and a field in flux will always invent new topics and trends that need diverse perspectives. But by definition, trespass happens on someone else’s property; it’s common to see a sideways disciplinary leap that puts a well-known figure ahead of existing practitioners in the attention queue.

This is certainly inefficient: rather than spending years figuring out the field, you could learn it in months by reading the right material or being mentored by an expert. But many techies have a weird conflicted dissonance of claiming to hate inefficiency while insisting on solving any interesting problem from first principles. I think it’s an ingrained habit now, but if it’s restricted to purely technical domains I’m not overly worried.

Of course, it isn’t restricted to technical domains, so Bowles riffs on Ballantyne to recommend epistemic humility:

It’s easy to confuse knowledge and skills, or to assume one will naturally engender the other in time. Software engineers, for example, develop critical thinking skills which are certainly useful elsewhere, but simply applying critical thinking alone in new areas, without foundational domain knowledge, easily leads to flawed conclusions. ‘Fake it until you make it’ is almost always ethically suspect, but it’s doubly irresponsible outside your comfort zone and in dangerous lands.

No one wants gatekeeping, or to be pestered to stay in their lane, and there are always boundary questions that span multiple disciplines. But let’s approach these cases with humility, and stop seeing ourselves as the first brave explorers on any undiscovered shore.

We should recognise that while we may be able to offer something useful, we’re also flawed actors, hampered by our own lack of knowledge. Let’s build opinions like sandcastles, with curiosity but no great attachment, realising the central argument we missed may just act as the looming wave. This means putting the insight of others ahead of our own, and declining work – or better, referring it to others who can do it to a higher standard – while we seek out the partnerships or training we need to build our own knowledge and skills.

As Bowles notes, no one wants gatekeeping… but as one of the foundational notions in STS assures us, gatekeeping—or “boundary objects”—are exactly what allow us to even talk about “spheres” and “domains” of expertise in the first place. Which is perhaps to say that while no one thinks they want gatekeeping, we all do it, and it’s actually a vital part of how ideas move between domains; when it’s done right, those ideas retain a coherence and usefulness across their sites of use while allowing for more specific deployments at each site. When it’s done badly, well, you get what Bowles and Ballantyne and Vonnegut are talking about: the transposition of ideas as particularly parsed by engineers (or techies, or coders, or whoever else it might be) into spheres where those parsings are inappropriate, no matter how well-intended, and potentially destructive.

As with pretty much everything he writes, Bowles here aims to draw out the inherent good that he sees in the denizens of the tech domain, and I would note that it is this essential generosity of spirit on his part that makes him a writer I always read: to put it another way, while he thinks with domains, he does not think with them deterministically (in the way that the “engineer’s disease” label definitely does).

I believe (or at least I believe I believe) similarly that most people are basically decent and well-intentioned, but I suspect I take a more structural view than Bowles on the shaping of intention into action—which is to say, I suspect that the time for making reasonable pleas for the tech domain to wind its neck in a bit has long since passed. This is not due to any fundamental malice or recalcitrance on the part of engineers and techies, to be clear, but rather the extent to which that domain has achieved hegemonic levels of control and influence over economic and discursive systems.

Which, I suppose, could easily be parsed as a call for “more regulation”… and I suppose that, in a way, that’s exactly what it is. But it’s also a call for a reconceptualisation of what regulation means, as well as how it’s executed; regulatory capture is probably one of the biggest factors in the securing of that hegemony. Which means that this is really a call for a revaluation of our values around technology, with the proviso that for me the category of “technology” extends to things like regulation and governance as well as, y’know, gadgets and apps and such.

Indeed, perhaps that particular conceptualisation of technology, which—as many of my readers will already be aware, but, for the avoidance of doubt—is definitely not original or unique to me, is the keystone to the change I’m calling for. But it would have to be in turn a part of a broader renunciation of the implicit supremacisms of humanism itself, which in turn would need to recognise that such ideas can never be conquered, only dealt with dialectically.

These thoughts were brought to you by my having re-read a bunch of Latour over the holidays, and by my having binged my way through Claire North’s brilliant Notes from the Burning Age in the last two days; I’ll hopefully find the time to write up my thoughts on the latter in soon.

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.)

Cyborg dialectics / a perpetual state of transition

Cyborg dialectics with Kimiko Ross

Dresden Codak. Started following his original webcomic way way back in the Noughties, when it was just as much of a one-person labour of love as it is now (though the artwork has gone from good to astonishing over the years).

Back then DC (and I, for my sins) were fellow-travellers of transhumanism; DC is, I suspect (on the basis of my reading of their work, rather than any direct knowledge), still a smidgen closer to that scene than I am these days, but the Dark Science series (go read some) has been steadily developing what feels like a much more posthumanist position — an understanding of the cyborg as a (sociotechnopolitical) metaphor, in other words, rather than the naive concretised misparsings of sf images so fetishized by the transhumanoids. This panel seems to confirm that feeling quite bluntly, at the same time as it resonates with stuff I’ve been discussing over the last few weeks*. Plus I thought maybe it was time I posted something that wasn’t just words.

* Things have been quiet because I’ve been in Sweden for close to three weeks, a “visiting scholar” set-up that is now drawing to a close. It’s been insanely busy and tiring, but very much in the positive sense.