amor mundi

Using Technology to Deepen Democracy, Using Democracy to Ensure Technology Benefits Us All

Friday, January 30, 2015

Long Teaching Day

In the City all the livelong day. This morning I begin with discussion of Laurie Anderson on technology as the belly of the uncanny and Paul Miller/DJ Spooky on the racist montage/mix tape in which cops killing black men calls back Breton's surrealist reverie. After a break we dive into instrumental rationality via Arendt, Heidegger, and Morozov. That's nine to noon. From one to four, it's Fontenelle's weird racist pseudo-science on the ancients and moderns followed by Kant's existential freakout in History with a Cosmopolitan Purpose and WEB Du Bois stage-setting black skin white masks with Double Consciousness -- history as a problem for you versus you as a problem for history. After break, Oscar Wilde and paradox, property, and circling back to a subversive take on the ancients and moderns again. I'm sleepy, and tho' thankfully past my cold the effects linger on, eagerly awaiting incubation in the stuffed swaying BART train. Blogging today will be low to no.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Cyberselfish, Fifteen Years Later

I've been teaching Paulina Borsook for all fifteen of the years she has been "absent" (and am teaching her again this term in my Digital Democracy, Digital Anti-Democracy seminar in the City) so these pieces are amplifying an abiding presence for me. Still, Geert Lovink (who introduces the pieces, and is somebody else I am teaching this term as usual) has provided a service and a pleasure with these. Her attitude toward libertechbrotarians and Google buses strongly suggests they should put Borsook in charge of ValleyWag to see if it can jump back the shark it jumped when they booted Biddle.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Rugged Individualism in the Technological Society

The body a cyborg shell made of genes and guns, the soul a target made of computation and marketing.

More Futurological Brickbats here.

The Yearning Annex: Google Commits Millions for Robot Cult Indoctrination in Plutocratic Venture-Capitalist Dystopia

Also posted at the World Future Society.
Their prose was all purple, there were VCs running everywhere, tryin' to profit from destruction, you know we didn't even care.
via Singularity Hub (h/t David Golumbia):
Google, a long-time supporter of Singularity University (SU), has agreed to a two-year, $3 million contribution to SU's flagship Graduate Studies Program (GSP). Google will become the program's title sponsor and ensure all successful direct applicants get the chance to attend free of charge. Held every summer, the GSP's driving goal is to positively impact the lives of a billion people in the next decade using exponential technologies. Participants spend a fast-paced ten weeks learning all they need to know for the final exam—a chance to develop and then pitch a world-changing business plan to a packed house.
"Exponential technologies" is a short hand for the false and facile narrative superlative futurologists spun from Moore's Law -- the observation in 1965 (the year I was born) that the number of transistors on an integrated circuit had been roughly doubling every two years, and the paraphrase of that observation into a law-like generalization that chip performance more or less doubles every two years -- into the faith-based proclamation that this processing power will inevitably eventuate in artificial intelligence, and soon thereafter a history shattering super-intelligence that will control self-replicating programmable nanoscale robots that will provide a magical superabundance on the cheap and deliver near immortality through prosthetic medical enhancement and the digital uploading of "informational soul-selves" into imperishable online paradises.

The arrival of superintelligent artificial intelligence is denominated "the Singularity" by these futurologists, a term drawn from the science fiction of Vernor Vinge, as are the general contours of this techno-transcendental narrative, taken up most famously by one-time inventor and now futurological "Thought Leader" Ray Kurzweil and a coterie of so-called tech multimillionaires like Peter Thiel, Elon Musk, Jaan Tallinn all looking to rationalize their good fortune in the irrational exuberance of the tech boom and secure their self-declared destinies as protagonists of post-human history by proselytizing and investing in transhumanist/singularitarian eugenic/digitopian ideology across the neoliberal institutional landscape at MIT, Stanford, Oxford, Google, and so on.

That most of these figures are skim-and-scam artists with little sense and too much money on their hands goes without saying as does the obvious legibility of their "technoscientific" triumphalism as a conventional marketing strategy for commercial crap (get rich quick! anti-aging! sexy-sexy!) but amplified into a scarcely stealthed fulminating faith re-enacting the theological terms of an omni-predicated godhead delivering True Believers eternal life in absolute bliss with perfect knowledge. Not to put too fine a point it, the serially-failed program of AI doesn't become more plausible by slapping "super" in front of the AI, especially when the same sociopathic body-loathing digi-spiritualizing assumptions remain in force among its adherents; exponential processing power checked by comparable ballooning kruft is on a road to nowhere like transcendence; and since a picture of you isn't you and cyberspace is buggy and noisy and brittle hoping to live there forever as an information spirit is pretty damned stupid even if you call yourself a soopergenius.

Since the super-intelligent and nanotechnological magicks on which techno-transcendentalists pin their real hopes are not remotely in evidence, these futurologists tend to hype the media and computational devices of the day, celebrating algorithmic mediation and Big Data framing and kludgy gaming virtualities like Oculus Rift and surveillance media like the failed Google Glass and venture capitalist "disruption" like airbnb and uber. That this is the world of hyping toxic wage-slave manufactured landfill-destined consumer crap and reactionary plutocratic wealth concentration via the looting and deregulation of public and common goods coupled with ever-amplifying targeted marketing harassment and corporate-military surveillance should give the reader some pause when contemplating the significance of declarations like "GSP's driving goal is to positively impact the lives of a billion people in the next decade using exponential technologies."

The press release suavely reassures us that "Google is, of course, no stranger to moon shot thinking and the value of world-shaking projects." I think it is enormously important to pause and think a bit about what that "of course" is drawing on and standing for. It should be noted what "moon shot thinking" amounts to in a world that hasn't witnessed a moonshot in generations. There are questions to ask, after all, about Google's "world-shaking projects" advertorially curating all available knowledge in the service of parochial profit-taking, all the while handwaving about vaporware like immortality meds and driverless car-culture and geo-engineering greenwash. There are questions to ask about the techno-utopian future brought about by a "grad school" at a "university" for which "the final exam" is "a chance to develop and then pitch a world-changing business plan to a packed house." I will leave delineating the dreary dystopian details to the reader.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Money and Speech Under Plutocracy

Whenever the profits of plutocrats are purchased by the precarity of the people, money is always speech and speech is always moneyed. Securing a basic income guarantee would create conditions under which for the first time it would be possible for money NOT to be speech.

When It Snows Assembly Goes?

I worry that in an epoch of increasing greenhouse storms regular recourse to preemptive urban lockdown dangerously habituates citizens to militarization.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Techno-Transcendental Celebrants of Science Are As Destructively Anti-Scientific As Any Creationist

Robot Cultist John G. Messerly hilariously declares religion doomed in a palpably religious techno-transcendental screed published over at hplus magazine (h+ stands for "humanity-plus" for all you merely human mehum humanity-minuses out there, in case you were wondering).

I am an atheist myself, but I tend to be rather cheerfully nonjudgmental about the issue. Both my sense of the force of aesthetic sublimity and my awareness of the demands of a faith in democracy connect with at least some of what religiosity can be for at least some of the variously religious, and so I do not find it so easy to dismiss all faith as such as many other atheists seem to do -- at least many of the atheists who seem to be getting a lot of media attention lately.

That said, I do find it easy to condemn efforts to politicize organized religiosity and militarize moralizing. Since this kind of militant evangelism threatens the differently religious quite as much as it threatens the non-religious, the majority of my allies on this issue are religious as I am not, exactly as you would expect if you are thinking sensibly about the question. As a champion of scientific discovery and practical problem-solving, I also condemn efforts to substitute fundamentalist articles of faith for warranted scientific beliefs where matters of prediction and control are concerned. And again, plenty of theologians are as concerned about the distortion of faith when it is misapplied to instrumental concerns as they are, and I am, concerned about the distortion of science by these misapplications.

What is extraordinary about the transhumanoids, singularitarians, techno-immortalists, digi-utopians, nano-cornucopiasts of techno-transcendental futurology is how readily they peddle what are palpable wish-fulfillment fantasies, eschatalogical narratives, end-time narratives (often quite obviously citing theological and mythological archives for conceits, images, frames as they proceed) as if they were actually thought-experiments, scientific hypotheses, or responsible public policy proposals. I have to say that the prevalence of deceptive and hyperbolic advertizing discourse and parochially extrapolative blue-skying across the neoliberal public and institutional terrain has unquestionably enabled futurologists to get away with this con artistry, indeed futurology is something like a reductio ad absurdum of neoliberal assumptions and aspirations, norms and forms, exposing the dangerously delusive, uncritically symptomatic, unsustainably infantile faith-based initiative of extractive-industrial complacent-conformist-consumerist corporate-militarism.

To say the least, of course, there simply is nothing to commend digi-topian cyberangel uploads in Holodeck Heaven over more conventionally religious conceptions of an afterlife. There is nothing to commend superintelligent post-biological AI over more conventionally religious omniscient sky-daddies. There is nothing to commend eugenic talk of enhancement and optimality over religious zealots declaring non-normative morphologies signs of Satan demanding consignment to the flames. There is nothing to commend the body-loathing of futurists pining to be digitized out of mortality or virtualized out of gravity or bio-enhanced out of vulnerability or artificially super-intellectualized out of error over the religious death-cults that inspire forced pregnancy zealotry and private arsenals and the inevitably mistaken execution of some of their fellow citizens and belligerent war posturing and the neglect of poor, cold, ill, hungry, homeless fellow-citizens in the name of a "culture of life." There is nothing to commend nanobotic superabundance over genies-in-a-bottle or prosperity theology.

And there is nothing to commend robocultic wish-fulfillment pseudo-science over religious creationist anti-science. Declaring this pseudo-science a championing of science merely adds insult to injury.

Under The Weather

Also, over the weather.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Don't Just Hope, Support Hope

That a guaranteed income would end hopeless poverty is a reason to support it, that it would begin endless hopeful enrichments is another.

More Dispatches from Libertopia here.

MundiMuster! Save Urban Studies at SFAI: Sign and Share the Letter

Since 2012, many concerns have been raised by faculty, students, staff, alumni, and supporters about a lack of transparency and accountability in the key decision making processes undertaken by the administration of the San Francisco Art Institute. The quite sudden recent suspension of the Urban Studies program seems to be yet another stunning confirmation of these worries.

To say that this decision has been more opaque than transparent is an understatement: Few of the actual stakeholders to such a momentous change at SFAI were aware that it was even under consideration until a public e-mail announced that the decision and the process justifying it had already concluded.

A review of the program is said to have taken place in the Spring of 2014, but few faculty or students involved in the actual program seem to have participated in either the review or the decision-making process. The timing of this review coincided with the absence of key figures in and champions of the program, and the results of the process are at odds with the results of other recent and ongoing review processes that involved wider participation of the relevant stakeholders.

While program changes ultimately depend on the Dean, they are supposed to be addressed in the Faculty Senate. The Urban Studies program was not suspended after a discussion or with a consenting vote of the Faculty Senate.

Dean Schreiber recently commented that Urban Studies does not offer a “robust experience” for students. In the absence of a definition of terms this judgment is hard to gauge, but it is difficult to understand how the accompanying proposal of a BFA with an urban focus more centered on studio classes than interdisciplinary courses could possibly be more robust on any definition. Re-assigning our institutional engagement with urban questions to studio classes will inevitably introduce fissures in the theoretical formulation of the urbanity in question. This envisioned change is also countering the current trend of expanding Urban Studies Master’s programs across the country’s academic institutions. 

Indeed, a host of courses directly taking up historical and theoretical questions of post-colonial pan-urbanity, environmental sustainability, urban poverty, street protests, immigrant communities―many of them focusing on urban movements in San Francisco in particular and taught for years by activists and participants in the movements themselves―such as Laura Fantone, and the renowned local historian Chris Carlsson―are vanishing from the 2015 curriculum. The loss of these engagements and the silence of these voices wounds our Institute. Far from a minor shift in focus these changes can only be understood as a radical dis-engagement with the urban as a real priority at SFAI.

As recently as SFAI’s Strategic Plan for 2013, the President and the Board of Trustees declared that “SFAI will strive to further improve its operations and heighten its ambitions in the service of art, artists, and the Bay Area community.” The decision to suspend Urban Studies contradicts SFAI’s long-held commitment to connect our students to the City and the greater Bay Area artistic community of which we are a part.

The San Francisco Art Institute is a school sited at the thriving heart of a world-historical city. We live and teach and create and connect in the midst of the urgent distress of artist and gallery evictions, in the scrum of venture capitalism’s “disruptions” of public goods and public services, in the face of the Silicon Valley steamroller of reductive tech-talk, in the creative ferment of street protest, all right here, all right now. In such a place and at such a time, at the very moment when other art schools and art programs are taking up the urban with renewed energy and vigor as an indispensable motor of convivial creativity and transformative imagination, it is difficult indeed to understand what considerations have driven this rash decision to suspend an already established and accomplished program here.

Please sign the letter here. And please share this widely.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Long Teaching Day

Teaching term has begun again, and I have two lectures on Fridays, first my undergraduate seminar on digital democracy and anti-democracy, from roughly nine to noon, then my graduate survey of critical theory from roughly one to four. I'm lecturing on my feet the full three hours for each, without much in the way of discussion actually, so today is more or less back to back openings for what will always be a long double bill. Flanked by bus and train commutes right around rush hour it's looking like a long slog. Once upon a time I would begin my courses with a gentle overview of the syllabus and policies and an early leave-taking, but since I just have one bite of the apple each week these opening look to be leaps right into the deep end of the pool, maps of conceptual and argumentative terrain that will take up the whole time. This morning, technology and democracy as sites of contestation, and the traffic between material and immaterial in tech-talk, this afternoon, critical theory as post-philosophy, social, cultural, exegetical traditions, fact, figure, fetish, etymological fantasias, much more. So, you should expect blogging to be low to no today and maybe tomorrow if I'm still in recovery/hungover.

Soap Bubbles

After Battlestar Galactica, the most successful TV re-boot has to be Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman as The Walking Dead.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Syllabus for my Digital Democracy, Digital Anti-Democracy Course (Starting Tomorrow)

Digital Democracy, Digital Anti-Democracy (CS-301G-01)

Spring 2015 01/23/2015-05/08/2015 Lecture Friday 09:00AM - 11:45AM, Main Campus Building, Room MCR

Instructor: Dale Carrico; Contact: dcarrico@sfai.edu, ndaleca@gmail.com
Blog: http://digitaldemocracydigitalantdemocracy.blogspot.com/

Grade Roughly Based On: Att/Part 15%, Reading Notebook 25%, Reading 10%, In-Class Report 10%, Final Keywords Map 40%

Course Description:

This course will try to make sense of the impacts of technological change on public life. We will focus our attention on the ongoing transformation of the public sphere from mass-mediated into peer-to-peer networked. Cyberspace isn't a spirit realm. It belches coal smoke. It is accessed on landfill-destined toxic devices made by wretched wage slaves. It has abetted financial fraud and theft around the world. All too often, its purported "openness" and "freedom" have turned out to be personalized marketing harassment, panoptic surveillance, zero comments, and heat signatures for drone targeting software. We will study the history of modern media formations and transformations, considering the role of media critique from the perspective of several different social struggles in the last era of broadcast media, before fixing our attention on the claims being made by media theorists, digital humanities scholars, and activists in our own technoscientific moment.

Provisional Schedule of Meetings

Week One, January 23: What Are We Talking About When We Talk About "Technology" and "Democracy"?

Week Two, January 30: Digital,

Laurie Anderson: The Language of the Future
Martin Heidegger, The Question Concerning Technology 
Evgeny Morozov, The Perils of Perfectionism
Paul D. Miller (DJ Spooky), Material Memories 
POST READING ONLINE BEFORE CLASS MEETING

Week Three, February 6: The Architecture of Cyberspatial Politics

Lawrence Lessig, The Future of Ideas, Chapter Three: Commons on the Wires
Yochai Benkler, Wealth of Networks, Chapter 12: Conclusion
Michel Bauwens, The Political Economy of Peer Production
Saskia Sassen, Interactions of the Technical and the Social: Digital Formations of the Powerful and the Powerless 
My own, p2p Is Either Pay-to-Peer or Peers-to-Precarity 
Jessica Goodman The Digital Divide Is Still Leaving Americans Behind 
American Civil Liberties Union, What Is Net Neutrality
Dan Bobkoff, Is Net Neutrality the Real Issue?

Week Four, February 13: Published Public

Dan Gillmour, We the Media, Chapter One: From Tom Paine to Blogs and Beyond
Digby (Heather Parton) The Netroots Revolution
Clay Shirky, Blogs and the Mass Amateurization of Publishing
Aaron Bady, Julian Assange and the Conspiracy to "Destroy the Invisible Government"
Geert Lovink Blogging: The Nihilist Impulse

Week Five, February 20: Immaterialism

John Perry Barlow, A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace
Katherine Hayles, Liberal Subjectivity Imperiled: Norbert Weiner and Cybernetic Anxiety
Paulina Borsook, Cyberselfish
David Golumbia, Cyberlibertarians' Digital Deletion of the Left
Richard Barbrook and Andy Cameron, California Ideology
Eric Hughes, A Cypherpunk's Manifesto
Tim May, The Cryptoanarchist Manifest

Week Six, February 27: The Architecture of Cyberspatial Politics: Loose Data

Lawrence Lessig, Prefaces to the first and second editions of Code
Evgeny Morozov, Connecting the Dots, Missing the Story
Lawrence Joseph Interviews Frank Pasquale about The Black Box Society
My Own, The Inevitable Cruelty of Algorithmic Mediation
Frank Pasquale, Social Science in an Era of Corporate Big Data
danah boyd and Kate Crawford, Critical Questions for Big Data Bruce Sterling, Maneki Neko

Week Seven, March 6: Techno Priesthood

Evgeny Morozov, The Meme Hustler
Jedediah Purdy, God of the Digirati
Jaron Lanier, First Church of Robotics
Jalees Rehman, Is Internet-Centrism A Religion?
Mike Bulajewski, The Cult of Sharing
George Sciaballa Review of David Noble's The Religon of Technology

Week Eight, March 13: Total Digital

Jaron Lanier, One Half of a Manifesto
Vernor Vinge, Technological Singularity
Nathan Pensky, Ray Kurzweil Is Wrong: The Singularity Is Not Near
Aaron Labaree, Our Science Fiction Future: Meet the Scientists Trying to Predict the End of the World
My Own, Very Serious Robocalyptics
Marc Steigler, The Gentle Seduction

Week Nine, March 16-20: Spring Break

Week Ten, March 27: Meet Your Robot God
Screening the film, "Colossus: The Forbin Project"

Week Eleven, April 3: Publicizing Private Goods

Cory Doctorow You Can't Own Knowledge
James Boyle, The Second Enclosure Movement and the Construction of the Public Domain
David Bollier, Reclaiming the Commons
Astra Taylor, Six Questions on the People's Platform

Week Twelve, April 10: Privatizing Public Goods

Nicholas Carr, Sharecropping the Long Tail
Nicholas Carr, The Economics of Digital Sharecropping
Clay Shirky, Why Small Payments Won't Save Publishing
Scott Timberg: It's Not Just David Byrne and Radiohead: Spotify, Pandora, and How Streaming Music Kills Jazz and Classical 
Scott Timberg Interviews Dave Lowery, Here's How Pandora Is Destroying Musicians
Hamilton Nolan, Microlending Isn't All It's Cracked Up To Be

Week Thirteen, April 17: Securing Insecurity

Charles Mann, Homeland Insecurity
David Brin, Three Cheers for the Surveillance Society!
Lawrence Lessig, Insanely Destructive Devices
Glenn Greenwald, Ewan MacAskill, and Laura Poitras, Edward Snowden: The Whistleblower Behind the NSA Surveillance Revelations
Daniel Ellsberg, Edward Snowden: Saving Us from the United Stasi of America

Week Fourteen, April 24: "Hashtag Activism" I

Evgeny Morozov Texting Toward Utopia 
Hillary Crosly Croker, 2013 Was the Year of Black Twitter
Michael Arceneux, Black Twitter's 2013 All Stars
Annalee Newitz, What Happens When Scientists Study Black Twitter
Alicia Garza, A Herstory of the #BlackLivesMatter Movement
Shaquille Bewster, After Ferguson: Is "Hashtag Activism" Spurring Policy Changes?
Jamilah King, When It Comes to Sports Protests, Are T-Shirts Enough?

Week Fifteen, May 1: "Hashtag Activism" II

Paulina Borsook, The Memoirs of a Token: An Aging Berkeley Feminist Examines Wired
Zeynap Tukekci, No, Nate, Brogrammers May Not Be Macho, But That's Not All There Is To It; How French High Theory and Dr. Seuss Can Help Explain Silicon Valley's Gender Blindspots
Sasha Weiss, The Power of #YesAllWomen
Lisa Nakamura, Queer Female of Color: The Highest Difficulty Setting There Is? Gaming Rhetoric as Gender Capital 
Yoonj Kim, #NotYourAsianSidekick Is A Civil Rights Movement for Asian American Women
Jay Hathaway, What Is Gamergate

Week Sixteen, May 8: Digital Humanities, Participatory Aesthetics, and Design Culture

Claire Bishop, The Social Turn and Its Discontents
Adam Kirsch, Technology Is Taking Over English Departments: The False Promise of the Digital Humanities
David Golumbia, Digital Humanities: Two Definitions
Tara McPherson, Why Are Digital Humanities So White?
Roopika Risam, The Race for DigitalityWendy Hui Kyong Chun, The Dark Side of the Digital Humanities
Bruce Sterling, The Spime
Hal Foster, Design and Crime
FINAL PROJECT DUE IN CLASS; HAND IN NOTEBOOKS WITH FINAL PROJECT

Syllabus for my Introduction to Critical Theory (Starting Tomorrow)

CS 500A: Introduction to Critical Theory Spring, 2015, San Francisco Art Institute

Instructor: Dale Carrico, dcarrico@sfai.edu
Course Blog: http://introcritsfai.blogspot.com/
Fridays 1-3:45, Chestnut Lecture Hall

Rough Basis for Grade: Reading Notebook, 25%; Three Precises, 25%; Fifteen+ Comments, 15%; Final Paper 15-20pp. 35%.

Course Description:

"The philosophers hitherto have only interpreted the world, but the point is to change it."--Karl Marx.

This course is a chronological and thematic survey of key texts in critical and cultural theory. A skirmish in the long rivalry of philosophy and rhetoric yielded a turn in Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud into the post-philosophical discourse of critical theory. In the aftermath of world war, critical theory took a biopolitical turn in Arendt, Fanon, and Foucault -- a turn still reverberating in work on socially legible bodies by writers like Haraway, Spivak, Butler, and Gilroy. And with the rise of the neoliberal precariat and climate catastrophe, critical theory is now turning again in STS (science and technology studies) and EJC (environmental justice critique) to articulate the problems and promises of an emerging planetarity. Theories of the fetish define the turn of the three threshold figures of critical theory -- Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud (commodity, sexuality, and ressentimentality) -- and fetishisms ramify thereafter in critical accounts from Benjamin (aura), Adorno (culture industry), Barthes (myth), Debord (spectacle), Klein (logo), and Harvey (tech) to Mulvey and Hall (the sexed and raced gaze).

Provisional Schedule of Meetings

Week One | January 23
Maps, Stories, Warnings by Way of Introduction

Week Two | January 30
Bernard le Bovier de Fontenelle, Digression on the Ancients and the Moderns
Immanuel Kant Idea for a Universal History from a Cosmopolitan Point of View
W.E.B. Du Bois, Of Our Spiritual Strivings from The Souls of Black Folk
Oscar Wilde, The Soul of Man Under Socialism
Preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray
Phrases and Philosophies for the Instruction of the Young
Wilde on Trial

Week Three | February 6
Nietzsche, On Truth and the Lie in an Extramoral Sense
Selections from The Gay Science
Ecce Homo: Preface -- Why I Am So Wise -- Why I Am So Clever -- Why I Am a Destiny (or Fatality)

Week Four | February 13
Marx and Engels, Theses on Feuerbach
Marx on Idealism and Materialism
Marx on The Fetishism of Commodities and the Secret Thereof from Capital

Week Five | February 20
Excerpts from Freud's Case Study of Dr. Schreber
Sigmund Freud, Fetishism

Week Six | February 27
Walter Benjamin, Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproducibility
A Short History of Photography
Adorno and Horkheimer, The Culture Industry
Adorno, The Culture Industry Reconsidered

Week Seven | March 6
Roland Barthes, Mythologies
Raymond Williams, Culture from Keywords
Dick Hebdige, on Subculture and Style

Week Eight | March 13
Guy Debord, Society of the Spectacle
Naomi Klein, Taking On the Brand Bullies, Patriarchy Gets Funky from No Logo
Stuart Hall, The Question of Cultural Identity

Week Nine | March 16-20 | Spring Break

Week Ten | March 27
Franz Kafka, Give It Up!
Louis Althusser, Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses
Hannah Arendt, The Gap Between Past and Future
William Burroughs on Coincidence and the Magical Universe

Week Eleven | April 3
Frantz Fanon, Selections from Black Skin, White Masks
Paul Gilroy, Race and the Right to be Human
Laura Mulvey, Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema
Kobena Mercer On Mapplethorp

Week Twelve | April 10
Michel Foucault, from Discipline and Punish, Introduction, Docile Bodies, Panoptism
Foucault, from History of Sexuality: We Other Victorians, Right of Death and Power Over Life
Frantz Fanon, Concerning Violence
Hannah Arendt, Reflections on Violence

Week Thirteen | April 13–17 | MFA Reviews

Week Fourteen | April 24
Judith Butler, Introduction and Chapter One from Undoing Gender
Donna Haraway, A Manifesto for Cyborgs
Valerie Solanas, The SCUM Manifesto
Carol Adams, Preface and On Beastliness and Solidarity

Week Fifteen | May 1
David Harvey Fetishism of Technology
Hannah Arendt, The Conquest of Space
CS Lewis Abolition of Man (you need only read Chapter Three)
Slavoj Zizek, Bring Me My Philips Mental Jacket!

Week Sixteen | May 8
Bruno Latour, A Plea for Earthly Science
Gayatri Spivak Theses on Planetarity

Course Objectives:

Contextualizing Contemporary Critical Theory: The inaugural Platonic repudiation of rhetoric and poetry, Vita Activa/Vita Contemplativa, Marx's last Thesis on Feuerbach, Kantian Critique, the Frankfurt School, Exegetical and Hermeneutic Traditions, Literary and Cultural Theory from the Restoration period through New Criticism, from Philosophy to Post-Philosophy: Marx, Nietzsche, Freud; the postwar biopolitical turn in Arendt, Fanon, and Foucault; and the emerging post-colonial, post-international, post-global planetarity of theory in an epoch of digital networked media formations and anthropogenic climate catastrophe.

Survey of Key Themes in Critical Theory: Agency, Alienation, Aura, Critique, Culture Industry, Discourse, Equity-in-Diversity, Fact/Value, Fetish, Figurality, Humanism/Post-Humanism, Ideology, Judgment, Neoliberalism, Post-Colonialism, Scientificity, Sociality, Spectacle, Textuality.

Survey of Key Critical Methodologies: Critique of Ideology, Marxism/Post-Marxism, Psychoanalysis, Foucauldian Discourse Analysis, Critical Race Theory, Gender Theory, Science and Technology Studies.

Connecting theoria and poiesis: thinking and acting, theory and practice, creative expressivity as aesthetic judgment and critical theory as poetic refiguration, etc.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Not Just A Creepy Cartoon, It's Artificial Imbecillence!

Horrifying Kickstarter Staff Pick. The mad monotonous piano scales in the background of the pitch perfectly capture the derangement produced by incessant insipid vapid algorithmic chatter. Extra points are due to the marketing jiujitsu of turning "hands-off" help into a feature. Of course it's "hands off": It's a goddamn lobotomized Disney Princess cartoon interrupting you with autocorrect suggestions wherever you go.

#futuressobrightIgottagiveshade

Microsoft's Hollow Lens hopes adding the Oculus Grift to Google Glassholery will prove two fails make a win.


Revolutionary, comfortable, and so attractive!


The Futurological Stain on the State of the Union

From the President's State of the Union address this evening:
Some of our bedrock sectors, like our auto industry, are booming. But there are also millions of Americans who work in jobs that didn't even exist ten or twenty years ago -- jobs at companies like Google, and eBay, and Tesla. So no one knows for certain which industries will generate the jobs of the future.
I'm no fan of America's ruinous and idiotic car culture -- which arose out of the postwar futurological cheerleading of "The Greatest Generation" -- but comparing the titans of Fordist manufacturing with SillyCon Valley's celebrity-CEOs and techbro VCs is patently ridiculous. It is notoriously the case that firms in the IT sector with market capitalization comparable to large retailers or manufacturing companies employ fractionally as many people than these traditional sectors do.

About those tech giants name-checked as exemplars on whom the President means to pin our jobs future? Well, Google employs between 37,000 and 52,000 people; eBay employs about 32,000 people; and Tesla motors employs about 6,000 people. That's far from the kind of stunning employment contribution these enterprises were made to symbolize in tonight's State of the Union.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics the Construction and Manufacturing sectors employ over 12% while the Information Sector employs under 2% of US jobs. And this is despite the recent decline in manufacturing, which has resulted from race-to-the-bottom trade policies rather than some irresistible digital destiny in any case, and hence could be reversed should our policies come to reflect fairness and sustainability priorities as they should on Obama's own terms.

It seems a bit odd, I must say, the way the speech corralled Tesla with Google and eBay, really, since elsewhere Obama's speech (in the snippet quoted above, for example) takes pains to distinguish "new" IT from "old" manufacturing. I guess it makes a difference when the auto manufacturer is making marginal publicity-hogging boutique-green electro-Edsels. All that hype just has the zing of new now next! Indeed, what all these companies actually share most of all is the techno-transcendental coloration imbued by our own generation's futurological flim-flam operators, peddling digitality and AI and cartoon-tech like Musk's LEO amusement park rides and Hyperloop stunt.

Even Obama's much-anticipated and discussed proposal to make two years of community college much more widely available was freighted with futurological framing. While I am heartened by any commitment to a real public investment in our capacity for collective problem-solving, I was disheartened again to find this proposal unexpectedly framed in the speech as a way to "train workers to fill high-paying jobs like coding... and robotics." As if coders and roboticists can overcome jobs lost to downsizing and outsourcing and financialization -- downsizing, outsourcing, and financialization indispensably enabled and abetted by, that's right, coders and automation!

And although I strongly favor the President's call for public investment in a faster and more open internet -- I must say that for one thing I am far from assured that the President's panoptic sorts comport with a sense of openness worthy of the name; and for another thing I am well aware that the reason Europe has an incomparably faster and cheaper and more reliable internet than Americans do right now has everything to do with regulations and nothing to do with "the digital innovators and entrepreneurs [who] keep reshaping our world" to whom Obama genuflected in his speech. I have a song in my heart for fact-gathering social workers and labor economists with clipboards like good Democrats are supposed to do, but the upward-failing skim-and-scam operators of the "new economy" Obama praised over and over again in the big speech tonight -- so many of whom slurp up government cash while crowing about their libertechbrotarian cyborg-individualism and hostility to Big Government -- just make me want to ralph.

Like the Clinton and Gore embrace of the irrational exuberance of the fin de siecle dot.bomb, Obama's embrace of digi- nano- AI- nonsense reveals the profound susceptibility of the partisan Democratic left to assimilating reactionary politics through uncritical "technology" discourses that rationalize corporate-military budgetary priorities and conduce to mass consumer-complacency and circumventions of democratic deliberation by self-appointed technocratic and designer elites. It is enormously important that the Democratic Party has embraced macroeconomic literacy, climate science, Darwinian evolution, public healthcare, safer sex eduction, medical research, renewable infrastructure spending, fact-based harm-reduction policy-making, and so on against the outrageous anti-intellectualism and science-denialism of today's GOP. But these Democratic commitments must be informed and not simply fetishistic.

I am a champion of real public space programs for discovery and research toward the public good -- which is why I refuse to celebrate the displacement of this vision by the Vegas dreams of for-profit space hucksters foisting low-earth orbit planes and orbital love motels on us while promising to colonize the solar system and mine the asteroids in an imperial gold-rush get-rich-quick future re-run of manifest destiny. I am a champion of real public investment in renewable, resilient energy, communication, and transportation infrastructure and of real investment in medical research and access -- which is why I refuse to celebrate the displacement of this vision by greenwashing geo-engineers or hucksters of enhancement and longevity moonshine for superannuated boy-band Boomers.

Democrats have to take care not to fall for pseudo-science nor for reactionary policies with a "tech" patina: like MOOCifying education "reformers," like budget hawks who pretend miracle medicine justifies raising the retirement age, like suave Big Data miners and masseurs treated more and more like wizards in electoral and marketing campaigns (which are becoming less and less distinguishable) at the risk of substance, like drone cheerleaders who want to make illegal war and assassinations on the cheap while we sleep, like venture-capitalist "disruptors" peddling the usual right-wing de-regulation, looting of common goods, and valentines to makers-vs-takers wealth-concentration.

Look, I enjoyed the President's attitude and ad libs as much as the next guy. There were edifying passages on fairness and sustainability and diplomacy (most of them contradicted at other points in the speech not to mention by reality). It wasn't a terrible speech, and it had the benefit of being pretty forgettable. As an opening move in the long campaign to put Hillary Clinton with an Elizabeth Warren inflection into the White House the speech wasn't half bad. But as somebody who takes progressive technoscience seriously, I must say the whole speech was stained by a futurology that has no future if we are to any. Hell, by the end I felt it was a mercy we weren't subjected to a paragraph on 3D-printing delivering post-scarcity and the Internet of Things!

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Google Glassholery Will Never Die!

"Startup CEO" David Levine has the sadz for the recent fall from grace of the awkward gawky panoptic Google Glass. He declares himself "perturbed and puzzled" by the glee with which glassholery's fail was greeted across the internet and "puzzled" again by the claim in industry rag CNET that the withdrawal of the product reflects the recognition by Google that few people seem to want the thing.

I'm puzzled that anybody is puzzled, but then I was never tempted to believe, as Levine did and apparently still does, that "Google Glass was literally the beginning of a revolution not just in the wearables sector but mobile as a whole. The concept was big, bold and brash and captured the imagination of the entire industry."

Of course, no crappy mobile device is "literally... a revolution." Gosh, how I love the crackerjack madness of that "literally."

The futurological derangement of reasonable assessment refuses to consider the actual costs, risks, and benefits of an artifact to the diversity of its stakeholders and the diversity of their wants in the diversity of their situations. The futurological at once re-frames technodevelopmental change from a site of stakeholder struggle to a series of stepping stones aspiring toward The Future, as well as re-directing technodevelopmental reflection from stakeholder deliberation to a consumer fandom providing escapism and promising transcendence.

Nobody ever wore the distracting, straining, uncomfortable, alienating Google Glass because it was useful but only because it enabled a kind of futuristic cosplay in denial about what it was doing while invested in a vision of The Future as drab as it is dystopian.

As a True Believer, Levine has learned from the failure of Glass nothing but that it will eventually triumph, naturellement. Zombie eyes and zombie lies forevs! The inevitable next iteration of the Revolution will, he assures us, be fasionable and respectful of privacy -- or, wink wink nudge nudge, much more "unobtrusive" about what it is and what it is doing.

Vive la revolution! Just die already.

Monday, January 19, 2015

If You Have A Brain, A Heart, Or A Conscience Fox News Is The Ultimate No Go Zone

Stop feeling vindicated, hopeful, or smug about recent Fox News apologies for their surreally idiotic and bigoted reports of "No Go Zones" in Europe. The apologies testify to their recognition that they have opened themselves up to powerful attacks and may divide Republican presidential hopefuls threading the bigoted Base needle in costly ways early on that could stick in the general election -- and by accepting their apology (or letting the matter drop now that they have made it, which amounts to the same thing) we collaborate in ensuring the damage they have done remains in force but also that they don't have to pay for it. Their bigot meme is out there now, and everybody's racist uncle will keep the zombie No Go Zones alive and eating brains from here to eternity. The only way to kill the meme is to subvert it with another meme that redirects the politics elsewhere. "Fox News is the Ultimate No Go Zone" is the meme-disruptor that occurred to me after one second's thought. Since "No Go Zones" seem to amount to ghettoized underserved communities, calling them "Now Go Help Zones" or something like that might be another approach to the rhetoric playing out here. Other proposals welcome.

Religious Beliefs Don't Pass Scientific Muster: But That Recognition Goes Both Ways

I agree with those who argue faithful convictions that are not scientifically warranted should not be taught in science classrooms or form the basis of public policy seeking accountable harm-reduction outcomes. I daresay a majority of the people who share my conviction on this score are actually people of some sort of faith or other, even if it also seems obviously true that the vast majority of people who disagree with me are religious fundamentalists.

It actually matters that while science education and public policy should be warranted by scientific criteria, it is also true that faithful beliefs that aren't about facilitating prediction or control but finding one's way to personal legibility, sublimity, or hope, say, need not be warranted by scientific criteria and that their failure to do so actually is not grounds for refuting them, once and for all.

Consistency neither recommends faith -- or any particular faith among the many competing faiths on offer -- nor provides a ground for rejecting faith out of hand. There are other grounds, taste, tradition, vicissitudes of history or personal experience that may do so for some (full disclosure: me included), but they seem to me mostly rather personal.

Certainly I disapprove faith communities that re-write politics in the image of imperial moralizing or science in the image of subcultural signaling -- but I disapprove science advocacy that would reduce aesthetic judgment, moral community, or political reconciliation to its terms for mostly the same reasons.

I'm an atheist -- that is to say I've been a-theist, without god(s), and cheerfully so, for more than thirty years by now -- but the force of my experiences of aesthetic sublimity and of my faith in democratic progress toward equity-in-diversity readily connects me with many who are religious. Again, I'm a atheist, but when atheist advocacy demands scientism or denigrates multiculture or provides a vehicle for racist, sexist or plutocratic reaction I honestly can't say that I feel the remotest connection to those who claim to champion an atheism I share.

2015 SOTU = Ready for Hillary 2016

At least that's what it is sounding like from the previews coming one day out.

Nothing stamps out a radical like putting them on a stamp.

True to form, America tried this first.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Super Green!

Looks Like Musk Rat Love

Mehumans and soon-to-be-uplifted Great Apes and Cetacea, rejoice! Randian archetype and scam artist Elon Musk has managed to keep the non-story about keeping the world safe from non-existing Robot Gods alive for yet one more day by promising to devote ten million dollars to "run a global research program aimed at keeping AI beneficial to humanity." Geez, how much money does it take to rent a room for a libertechbrotarian circle jerk, anyway? I do hope these men of Science! and also Ethics! didn't let Elon get away with paying in digital muskcoin. "AI leaders" (what on earth could that possibly mean?) declared the prospect of getting millions of dollars "wonderful" but added that they "deserve much more funding than even this donation will provide." So, keep that collection plate nice and full if you hope to get uploaded as cyberangels in Holodeck Heaven one day, Robot Cultists! "I love technology, because it's what's made 2015 better than the stone age", said MIT professor and Future of Life Institute president Max Tegmark, I guess because maybe he got drunk when he heard about the donation? (That's really a quote, and from his own press release, it's right there if you click the link.) With thought leadership like that at the helm, who can doubt acceleration will keep accelerating, but, you know, ethically and stuff, into The Future of Robots we all want because we're not robots?

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Will ValleyWag's Dan Lyons Jump the Robo-Shark?

The first post arrived last Friday: "Stephen Hawking sees the danger of artificial intelligence. So does Elon Musk. Oxford professor Nick Bostrom, head of the Future of Humanity Institute, has written a whole book about it. Even the scientists at Google DeepMind, who are developing artificial intelligence, seem a little spooked about it... Since it's a new year, and since it's the weekend, why don't we ponder the possibility that sometime in the (relatively speaking) not-too-distant future, our miserable species will vanish."

"The danger." Is there one? "The Institute." Is it Very Serious? "A whole book." Is it worth reading? "The scientists." Scientists, are they? "Are developing." ARE they now?

A fine critique of the arguments and the cultists making the arguments appeared soon (click the link for all of it, I've merely excerpted it), written by a reader who also contributes excellent comments in the Moot here, "Esebian,"
I'm sorry, but you made this blog jump the fucking shark. Valleywag was always about exposing the fraud, the self-aggrandizement and the damages done by SillyCon Valley, but right now you sing along to their marketing department's tune. Because that's exactly what sooper-intelligence and "godlike AIs" really are, publicity stunts. It comes in to flavors: A) rehashed religious paradise fantasies about the New Computer God creating utopia with nanomachines fulfilling all material needs and building sooper-great robot bodies for us to "upload" into and become immortal or B) doom 'n' gloom stories about Skynet nuking the puny hoo-mans. Both of them are supremely masturbatory and completely divorced from reality... The integrity of this blog is at stake! You're playing right into the hands of techbro scam artists and crackpot cultists. Don't let this site be dragged into the transhumanist/Singularitarian mire.
This comment and a couple more exposed the reductive, hyperbolic pseudo-scientific nonsense on which this super-AI fearmongering is premised and seemed to receive fairly supportive responses from Lyons. Fine, then, thought I.

And then three days ago Lyons posted another bite at the super-AI poisoned apple, and although it snarked about some Hollywood types we would be foolish to take seriously on this issue (as apparently against Robot Cultists who are taken quite seriously on this issue instead) the substance of the case for the Very Serious worry about the "existential risk" of super-AI was presented at great length and with little substantial qualification.

Incredibly, a third post on the topic appeared today. The full text: "The battle: Elon Musk versus killer robot with AI brain. On one side, enormous intelligence combined with a completely ruthless, amoral worldview and limitless resources. On the other side, a robot. Who will win?" Of course, one cannot help but provide the action-flick trailer voiceover -- "In a world of killer robots, Iron Man Elon Musk girds his loins for battle!" -- but it intrigues me that behind the implied snark this is essentially nothing but a recapitulation of the straight robocultic line.

As "Esebian" noted, ValleyWag offers quite a lot of critique of tech hyperbole and vacuity as well as documenting the atrocities of celebrity-ceo sociopathy and tech-guru weirdness and vapidity, all of which are only too readily applicable to the topic at hand. This would not appear to be the spirit in which these pieces are being offered up, however, and the example of sister-site io9's regular capture by transhumanoid proselytizing (Dumb Dvorsky, I'm looking at you!) at the expense of the substantive sfnal literary/cultural critique they do pretty well otherwise gives me reasons to worry.

Techno-transcendentalism is the reductio ad absurdum of reactionary corporate-military digi-utopian fraud and plutocratic skim-and-scam -- it amplifies the status quo while pretending to be a radical critique. One hopes the critics and contrarians of ValleyWag retain the sense and standards to grasp the difference, else they will become a promotional rather than satirical response to SillyCon VC sub(cult)ure. If it helps, wags, do read this.

AI Isn't A Thing

People who flutter their hands over the "existential risk" of the theoretically impoverished, serially failed project of good old-fashioned artificial intelligence (GOFAI) or its techno-transcendental amplification into a post-biological super-intelligent Robot God (GOD-AI) think they are worried about a thing. They think they are experts who know stuff about a thing that they are calling "AI." They can get in quite a lather arguing over the technical properties and sociopolitical entailments of this thing with just about anybody who will let them.

But their "AI" does not exist. Their "AI" does not have properties. Their "AI" is not on the way.

Their "AI" is a bunch of fancies bounded by stipulations. Their "AI" stands in the loosest relation to the substance of real code and real networks and their real problems and real people doing real work on them here and now.

"AI" is a discourse, and it serves a primarily ideological function: It creates a frame -- populated with typical conceits, mobilizing customary narratives -- through which real problems and complex phenomena are being miscomprehended by technoscientific illiterates, acquiescent consumers, and wish-fulfillment fantasists. Ultimately, the assumptions and aspirations investing this frame have to do with the promotion and advertizing of commodities, software packages, media devices and the resumes of tech-talkers. At their extremity, these assumptions and aspirations mobilize and substantiate the True Belief of techno-transcendentalists given over to symptomatic fears of mortality, vulnerability, contingency, error, lack of control, but it is worth noting that the appeal to these irrational fears and passions merely amplify (in a kind of living reductio ad absurdum) the drives consumer advertizing and venture-capitalist self-promotion always cater to anyway.

Actually-existing biologically-incarnated consciousness, intelligence, and personhood look little like the feedback mechanisms of early cyberneticists and less still like the computational conceits of later neurocomputationalists. Bruce Sterling said nothing but the obvious when he pointed out that the brain is more like a gland than a computer. Living people don't look any more like the Bayesian calculators of alienated robocultic sociopaths than they look like the monomaniacal maximizers of political economy's no less sociopathic homo economicus.

So, of course, "The Forbin Project" and "War Games" and "The Terminator" and "The Lawnmower Man" and "The Matrix" are movies -- everybody knows that! Of course, our computers are not going to reach critical mass and "wake up" one day, any more than our complex and dynamic biosphere will do. Moore's Law is not spontaneously going to spit out a Robot God any more than an accumulating pile of abacuses would -- not least due to Jeron Lanier's corollary to Moore's Law: "As processors become faster and memory becomes cheaper, software becomes correspondingly slower and more bloated, using up all available resources."

Again, everybody knows all that. But can everybody be expected to talk or act like people who know these things? Sometimes, the exposure of the motives and hyperbole and deception of AI ideology will lead its advocates and enthusiasts to concessions but not to the relinquishment of the ideology itself. Even if we do not need to worry about making Hal our pal, even if AI will not assume the guise of a history-shattering super-parental Robot God... what if, they wonder, somebody codes some mindless mechanism that is satanic by accident or in the aggregate, like a vast robo-runaway bulldozer scraping the earth of its biological infestation, a software glitch that releases an ubergoo waveform transforming the solar system into computronium for crunching out pi for all eternity?

The arrant silliness of such concerns is exposed the moment one grasps that security breaches, brittle code, unfriendly interfaces, mindless algorithms resulting in catastrophic (and probably criminal) public decisions are all happening already, right now. There are people working on these problems, right now. The pet figures and formulations, the personifications, moralisms, reductions and triumphalisms of AI discourse introduce nothing illuminating or new into these efforts. If anything, AI discourse encourages its adherents to assess these developments not in terms of their actual costs, risks, and benefits to the diversity of their actual stakeholders, but to misread them as stepping stones along the road to The Future AI, signs and portents in which is glimpsed the imminence of The Future AI, thus distracting from the present reality of problems to the imagined future into which symptomatic fears and fancies are projected.

So, too, sometimes the exposure of the irrational True Belief of adherents of AI-ideology and the crass self-promotion and parochial profit-taking of its prevalent application in consumer advertizing and the pop-tech journalism will lead its advocates and enthusiasts to different concessions. Sure, it turns out that Peter Thiel and Elon Musk are hucksters who pulled insanely lucrative skim-and-scam operations over on technoscientific illiterates and now want to consolidate and justify their positions by promoting themselves as epochal protagonists of history. And, sure, Ray Kurzweil and Eliezer Yudkowsky are guru-wannabes spouting a lot of pseudo-scientific pseudo-philosophical pseudo-theological nonsense while looking for the next flock to fleece. But what if there are real scientists and entrepreneurs and experts somewhere doing real coding and risking real dangers in their corpoate-military labs, quietly lost in their equations, unaware that they are coding the lightning that will convulse the internet corpse into avid Frankensteinian life?

Of course, the very robocultic nonsense disdained in such recognitions has found its way to the respectability and moneybags of Google, DARPA, Oxford, Stanford, MIT. And so, to imagine some deeper institutional strata where the really serious techno-transcendental engines are stoked actually takes us into conspiratorial territory rather quickly. Indeed, this fancy is a mirror image of the very pining one hears from frustrated Robot Cultists who know all too well in their heart of hearts that nobody is out there materializing their daydreams/nightmares for them, and so one hears time and time again the siren call for separatist enclaves, from taking over tropical islands or building offshore pirate utopias on oil rigs to huddling bubbled under the sea or taking a buckytube space elevator to their private L5 torus or high-tailing it out to their nanobotically furnished treasure cave -slash- mad scientist lab in the asteroid belt to do some serious cosmological engineering.

Again, it is utterly wrong-headed to think there are serious technical types working on "AI" -- because there is nothing for them to be working on. Again, "AI" is just a metaphorization and narrative device that enables some folks to organize all sorts of complex technical and political developments into something that feels like sense but is much more about wishes than working. The people solving real problems with code and technique and policy aren't doing "AI" and to read what they are doing through AI discourse is fatally to misread them. It is only a prior investment in the assumptions and aspirations, figures and frames of AI discourse that would lead anybody to think one should relinquish the scrum of real-world problem solving and ascend instead to some abstract ideality the better to formulate a "roadmap" with which to retroactively imbue technoscientific vicissitudes with Manifest Destiny or to treat as "the real problem" the non-problem of crafting humanist Asimovian injunctions to constrain imaginary robots from imaginary conflicts they cause in speculative fictions.

You don't have to worry about things nobody is working on. You shouldn't pin your hopes or your fears on pseudo-philosophical fancies or pseudo-scientific follies. You don't have to ban things that don't and won't exist anyway, at any rate not in the forms techno-transcendentalists are invested in. There are real things to worry about, among them real problems of security, resilience, user-friendliness, interoperability, surveillance. "AI" talk won't help you there. That should tell you right away it works instead to help you lose your way.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Futurology's Shortsighted Foresight on AI

Also posted at the World Future Society.
 The idea of a ban on "existentially-risky" artificial intelligence -- a term which is concerned with quite a lot of stuff that isn't or wouldn't be intelligent -- is momentarily very much in the news right now (or what passes for news in the illiterate advertorial pop-tech press) due to a recent Open Letter from the Future of Life Institute -- an "institute" which is concerned with quite a lot of stuff that isn't or wouldn't be alive. This Letter happens to be getting a lot of signatures from celebrities and celebrity CEOs, but also some computer scientists who are no more expert than you or me or Alan Alda (who has signed the Letter) to wade into the philosophy of consciousness or personhood at issue.

Actually, many of the signatories to the letter are outright boosters, one might even say dead-enders, for the serially failed project of good old fashioned artificial intelligence (GOFAI), and while much of the public discussion of AI/superAI in these circles is framed in terms of bans, the Letter itself indulges in loose talk of "responsible oversight" of AI. Mostly, this seems to me to involve giving more money and more attention to the people who still take GOFAI seriously. The key folks behind the Letter are techno-transcendentalists explicitly associated with transhumanist and singularitarian and techno-immortalist movements and sub(cult)ures, and it is interesting how rarely even those ridiculing the Letter are pointing out this fact (you will find Nick Bostrom, George Dvorsky, Ben Goertzel, Elon Musk, Jaan Tallinn, Eliezer Yudkowsky all over my Superlative Summary).Would commenters be so reticent to notice were all these figures to happen to be Raelians or Scientologists?

It is a bit demoralizing to find that the public debate on this topic seems to be settling into one between those who say something on the order of "well, some of these extreme arguments seem a bit crazy, but this problem needs to be taken seriously" versus those who ridicule the debate by joking "I for one welcome our robot overlords" and then declaring that when the Robot God arrives we don't stand a chance. In other words, every position concedes the validity of the topic and its essential terms while at once pretending to step back from it. These gestures essentially concede the field to the futurologists and invigorate the legibility of their AI discourse and hence the profitability of the marketing agenda of the tech companies that deploy it, which is the only victory they want or need in any case.

Now, I for one think that there is no need to ban AI/super-AI because our present ignorance and ineptitude form barriers to its construction incomparably more effective than any ban could do. We lack even the most basic understanding of so many of the phenomena associated with actually-existing biologically-incarnated consciousness, affect, and identity, while our glib attributions of intelligence and personhood to inert objects and energetic mechanisms all attest to the radical poverty of our grasp however marvelous our reach. We don't need to get the problem of the Robot God off the table, because there is no Robot God at the table nor will there be any time soon.

I daresay all this need not be the case forever, after all. Perhaps human civilization will one day confront the danger of AI/super-AI, but that day is not soon -- and those who say otherwise seem to me mostly to be laymen in the field of computer science making claims about the state of the art for which they are unqualified, or computer scientists making philosophical arguments in ways that reveal little philosophical rigor or historical awareness.

There is no reason to think that a sensible assessment of the state of the art in computer programming here and now would undermine reassessment in the future should our models and techniques improve. Indeed, there is every reason to think, to the contrary, that premature concern from our limited perspective will introduce false formulations and figures the legacy of which might interfere with sensible deliberation later when it is actually relevant.

To repeat: I think it is extremely premature to deliberate over banning or regulating non-existing nor soon-to-exist AI/superAI here and now; and, if anything, to do so is more likely to undermine the terms of such deliberation should it eventually become necessary. My critique does not end there, however, since this utterly unnecessary and premature and eventually possibly damaging AI/superAI deliberation here and now is happening nonetheless, and seems to be attracting greater attention, and so does have real effects in the world even without any justification on its own terms or real objects of concern.

This takes me to a critical proposal at a different level: namely, that the time and money and the conferral of authority on "experts" devoted to the "existential risk" of unregulated/unfriendly AI/superAI functions to divert resources and attention from actual problems and actually relevant experts, and indeed is sometimes mobilized precisely to trivialize urgently real problems (as the increasingly influential Nick Bostrom's worries about AI are directly connected to a rejection of the scope of anthropogenic climate change as a public problem, for example).

Returning to the Letter's recommendation of "responsible oversight," consider this paradoxical result: nobody can deny that there are incredible problems and enormous risks associated with the insecurity of networked computers and with user-unfriendliness of programs and with the dangerous political consequences of substituting algorithms for judgments about human lives. Such questions are usually not the focus of the futurological discourse of AI/superAI, and usually serve at best as dispensable pretexts or springboards for heated "technical" discussion debating the Robot God odds of robocalypse or roborapture. Indeed, it is one of the more flabbergasting consequences of AI/super-AI discourse that they not only distract from actually real problems of computation, but that AI/superAI discourse becomes a distortive lens of false and facile personifying figures and moralizing frames that confuse the relevant terms and stand in the way of deliberation over the problems at hand.

Incredibly, if AI/superAI eventually does become a matter of real concern in anything remotely like the terms that preoccupy futurologists I would say we will be better prepared to cope with it through ongoing and gathering practical experience with actual coding problems as they actually exist, than ignoring reality and instead imagining idealized future machines from our present, parochial, symptomatic perspective.

The primary impact of AI/superAI discourse as it ramifies in the public imaginary has been instead to denigrate human intelligence as it actually exists: calling cars "smart" to sell stupid unsustainable car-culture to consumers, calling credit cards "smart" to seduce people into ubiquitous surveillance the better to harass them with targeted ads, and to rationalize crappy "AI" software like autocorrect and crappy computer-mediated "smart" analyses like word-clouds, and crappy "decision" algorithms to determine who gets to start a business or who gets to be extrajudicially murdered by a drone as a potential "terrorist." As always, talk of artificial intelligence yields artificial imbecillence above all.

AI discourse in its prevalent forms solves no real problems, is not equipped to deal with eventual problems, and functions in the present to cause catastrophic problems. It seems to be of use primarily as a way to promote crappy computation for short-term plutocratic profit.

It is no surprise that this shortsightedness is what futurologists and tech-talkers would peddle as "foresight."

The Artificial Man Returns!

I find it impossible to believe that Mitt Romney is really making a third bid for the presidency, and assume this is some sort of gross rich white dude pissing contest with Bush over who is the still-is and who is the has-been in the Greedy Olds Party or whatever, but I honestly found it pretty impossible to believe he was making the second bid he was actually making when he was doing that either, so who knows? Certainly I never thought there would be any excuse at all to remind anybody of my fable, The Artificial Man the Killer Clowns Made and the Mouse Child Who Said What She Saw, but here we are and here it is.