Sunday, February 13, 2011

Scorching the common ground

Only the most ardently Luddite amongst us deny that technological advances change our lives in myriad, dramatic and often unexpected ways. Western approaches to city planning post-automobile, for instance, differ in marked ways from before the introduction of cheap medium-range transportation. Likewise, the introduction of telecommunications technology like the telegraph and the telephone changed how people relate to each other, making distance that much less of an impediment to human interaction. Broadcast media such as radio or TV changed nearly completely the primary modes by which information and culture diffuse in Western societies.

Of course, too, many of the features of society which we take completely for granted now are the products of advances in technology as well. We use signage to indicate all manner of information, as it is reasonable to expect that the vast majority of adults are literate and thus will be able to understand such signage. Though nearly invisible in its prevalence, then, the use of signage is a feature of a society that has truly adopted the printing press technology to the point where literacy is a requirement for societal participation.

It thus behooves us to understand how technology reshapes society. We do this in many ways, not the least of which is by exploring technological impacts in fiction. Betraying my own literary interests, I feel compelled to point to science-fiction as being one of the primary vehicles for exploring how society--- even humanity itself--- change in the face of technological advances. To choose an example that has truly permeated into the culture-at-large, consider the technologically-driven optimism of Star Trek: the United Federation of Planets represents humanity at its best, thriving in a true post-scarcity economy enabled by fictional technologies such as the replicator. Whether or not we ever make a replicator, or whether such a thing is even physically reasonable, setting a show against the backdrop of a world in which replicator technology has banished scarcity helps us understand something very real and very timely today: rapid prototyping. Sites such as MakerBot, Shapeways and Thingiverse reflect that there are some kinds of scarcity being made obsolete by technological progress. Primarily, scarcity deriving from access to manufacturing equipment is becoming less and less pronounced, shifting scarcity onto raw materials. This obsolescence of scarcity was explored first in fictional worlds such as that depicted in Star Trek, and so we are at least somewhat prepared for its impacts.

Where, then, do we turn to understand how the line between human and machine becomes less obvious by the year? Where, then, do we turn to understand the changing of such concepts as "gender" from immutable to transient? Where, then, do we turn to understand the impacts of an ever increasing longevity? We turn to many things, including turning again to fictional realms. We turn to stories like Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow, to stories like Accelerando (free e-book, CC licensed), to stories like Ghost in the Shell. There are, of course, many many others that could and should be mentioned in such a list--- it is beyond my intent to provide such a list here, though. Rather, I wish to emphasize that the usefulness of a story to discussion need not hinge on its direct physical reasonableness. Indeed, fanciful tales help us understand quite a bit about the relentless advance of technology and of scientific knowledge.

Many issues of transhumanism and of a society transformed by access to information can be understood under that most controversial of umbrellas, the Singularity. There, we find stories and arguments abound to help us understand what it means to be human when our biology is a platform as fungible as any other. In discussing and understanding the arguments and stories that go along with the Singularity, we find new perspectives on the human condition, at least some of which shall hopefully be useful in the decades and centuries to come.

Here, I note that those defending the irrationality of religion make arguments that are, on the surface, quite similar. It doesn't matter if there exists any literal gods, so long as the stories help us understand ourselves. The primary difference in my argument, however, is that I do not advocate rejecting the application rationality and skepticism on the basis that temporarily suspending it can be a useful exercise. Indeed, it is well argued that the rejection of skepticism is a highly dangerous position to take, even at its best. Thus, I reject the "rapture of the nerds" approach to the Singularity as completely as I reject the whole thesis of religion.

The conflating of useful hypotheticals and of artistic endeavors with a religion-like dedication to a set of claims, even in absence of evidence, is why I take issue with the Kurzweil approach to the Singularity so rightfully mocked by PZ Myers today. By turning the Singularity from a discussion into a religion, Kurzweil and others like him obstruct the usefulness of Singularity thought. Rational and skeptical people, reacting to Kurzweilian nonsense like "immortality in 35 years," are inclined to sometimes also reject the usefulness of hypothetical thinking about posthumanism, transhumanism, artificial intelligence, and of pervasive information networking.

My humble proposal, then, is to reject the scorched ground of religion-infused Singularity thinking and to instead find common ground well-supported by the rigors of evidence and yet informed by hypotheticals. We can have it both ways insofar as we are willing to refrain from magical thinking about technology that passes Clarkian thresholds.

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