cyborgs & saviors & how did this happen? 2k16

Like a lot of people these days, I've been pondering my chances of surviving the oncoming apocalypse. With 4 years of Trump looming on the horizon, my brain is searching for something to be mildly, rationally optimistic about. Since my faith in "humanity" feels even weaker than usual, my thoughts have turned vertical, to post-human hope. And as they are wont to do, my trains of thought have careened off-course and are just kinda smashing peripheral stuff along the way, so this blog post is a bit scattered. But so am I, so, whatevs.



Nick Bostrom, the mind behind the Simulation Argument, wrote a book about philosophical conundrums humanity will need to grapple with when we develop Artificial General Intelligence. It’s called Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies and you didn't hear it from me but there are pdf's of it for download on certain sites. The first couple chapters are pretty technical, but later on Bostrom introduces some fascinating and terrifying ethical points.

“As the fate of gorillas now depends more on humans than on the species itself, so would the fate of humankind depend on the actions of machine superintelligence.” This of course has already begun. Our day-to-day relies on ANI- Artificial Narrow Intelligence. If the internet went down worldwide-- perchance at the hands of another solar flare-- our species would certainly suffer. But we’d manage to, at the least, survive. On the other hand, if all humans disappeared, gorillas would thrive. It's certainly not a novel thought to suggest that that which sustains us as we are today and that which threatens our survival are one and the same. But still, where to go from here? What new technologies and structures can we possibly create from underneath our regimes? Are we at the point where something else will need to save us from ourselves?



This also reminds me of a quote from Eliezer Yudkowsky in Artificial Intelligence as a Positive and Negative Factor in Global Risk: "The AI does not hate you, nor does it love you, but you are made out of atoms which it can use for something else." Is our own obsoletion our salvation? In the vein of that punk slogan 'Save the Earth! Don't Give Birth!' are we a species net-negative for everyone else, and so must create something better than us to atone for our sins? I'm loathe to bring in theological and morality concepts into this, but it's the language I find when searching for some solution. Most humans, I'd wager, look around at the state of the world as it is today and feel a twinge of guilt. Those who truly look at 'us' as a whole have to hear that nagging thought that we could be doing so much better than this.

I guess I’ve been returning to these ideas lately because 1. Westworld is the fuckin’ tits, and 2. this whole “did the catalyst for the apocalypse just happen?” feeling has made me want to believe that humanity can be better, somehow. Like how some people’s lives are more than the sum of moments. Maybe 2016 has been such a firey shitshow that it’s made a cosmist of me.

BEN: You’ve spoken of the “deity as mathematician” argument.  Is this a version of Eugene Wigner’s observation of the “unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics”?  It seems to me that this is an interesting intuitive argument for the existence of some fundamental hidden order in the universe – related to the order we see in mathematics – but not necessarily a strong argument for an actively intelligent “deity” with its own coherent memory, consciousness, goals, and so forth.  Can you explain how the observation of surprising amounts of mathematical structure in the universe suggests the existence of a “deity” rather than just a “subtle hidden order”?  Or is your deity basically the same thing as what I’m (somewhat awkwardly) calling a “subtle hidden order”?





HUGO: Yes, subtle question.  I think the rise of the artilect with its massive intelligence levels during this and in later centuries makes it very plausible that our universe operates according to such deep mathematical principles.  These principles would be the result of the artilect deity’s design.  Whether such principles could “be there” without such design, is hard to imagine.  The deeper the physics genii of this century (such as Ed Witten, etc) delve into the deep structure of our universe, the more mathematical it seems to be, e.g. with superstring theory using the very latest ideas in low dimensional topology, with its beautiful mathematics.  This creates in my mind the deep suspicion that our universe is designed according to such mathematical principles.  If it is not designed, then is it just pure chance that our universe is so highly mathematical?  That seems so implausible.  This “mathematical principle” is closely analogous to the “anthropic principle” in the sense that our particular universe design seems so fantastically a priori improbable.  One is virtually forced to accept it has been designed.  The so called “designer” traditionally was conceived of as a theity, but now that we humans can imagine artilects, we have a new way to imagine the designer, i.e. as an artilect, and hence compatible with our deeply held scientific principles.  I guess what I’m saying is “artilectual deism is compatible with science”, whereas “traditional theism is simply pre-scientific garbage.”  You (may have) alluded to Spinoza’s ideas with your “subtle hidden order”.  Einstein talked about “der Alte” (the “old one”, who designed the universe).  He wanted “to know his thoughts.”

I agree with you that if there were no artilect-deity concept, then the existence of a subtle hidden order would support the idea of a creator less strongly.  But science-based artilects are now very credible, so give strong support to the idea of our universe being designed by an earlier artilect in a previous universe.



For a bit I thought cosmism could fit into the ‘rational optimism’ column. Why not throw in some good ol' teleological arguments? Maybe yes, a chunk of humans are garbage and some voted for Trump and some complain about homeless people and some don’t use their turn signal. But also there are pretty ok people and even some super rad people and there’s Bjork. Perhaps if, in the grand scheme of things, the ‘rad’ outweighs the ‘shitty,’ then we’ll last long enough to build something better than us. We could carry on the tradition of creating a path for the next step on the evolutionary ladder, before we fall off into extinction.

And maybe I’m just grasping at straws cause I’m worried I’ll never have healthcare again. Because isn’t the panicked act of seeking a savior what weak-willed camels do? Isn’t that how Trump happened? Ugh. I was just listening to someone talk about how you’ll never achieve anything by believing that something exists beyond the Absurd. And this post-2016 election landscape is hella absurd. 

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One important route for reconstructing socialist-feminist politics is through theory and practice addressed to the social relations of science and technology, including crucially the systems of myth and meanings structuring our imaginations. The cyborg is a kind of disassembled and reassembled, postmodern collective personal self. [P.163]

In a serendipitous click, the WCCW reading circle had chosen Donna Haraway’s “A Cyborg Manifesto” as our material for the Nov. 9th meeting. Everyone was hugging one another in this sad, listless way. As if we were just coming together after a horrible earthquake. Someone had broken out the wine. We sat around the table ready to discuss cyborgs and feminism, but people could barely bring themselves to speak.  




…what people are experiencing is not transparently clear, and we lack sufficiently subtle connections for collectively building effective theories of experience. [P.173]

Everyone seemed to be looking inside themselves. You could almost hear thoughts-- “how did this happen?” “How were we all so wrong?” We were seduced into believing continued “progress” was a given. We had no real idea that so many others, who are so close to us, felt so differently. We are all feeling very far away from one another. M said she was at home alone, watching the election results, crying. Her only solace was her phone; texting her loved ones, seeing their words online. I told M, “I’ve heard that described as “ambient intimacy.” And immediately felt cold, as if I’d responded to her tears with a technicality. Things are gained and things are lost and everything changes just the same.

The main trouble with cyborgs, of course, is that they are the illegitimate offspring of militarism and patriarchal capitalism, not to mention state socialism. But illegitimate offspring are often exceedingly unfaithful to their origins. Their fathers, after all, are inessential. [P.151]

In Westworld, the cyborg hosts are programmed to fulfill the whims of the guests. “To shoot and fuck.” Our images of cyborgs seem to fall into one of those categories. Sexy vodka mascots and annihilating terminators. I suppose ‘robot with god-like intellect solves climate change, cures cancer, brings back the dodo’ isn’t an exciting movie. We’d rather ponder getting blown / up than imagine relinquishing our titles as children of god, apex predator. We've turned around and shat on everything that preceded us on the evolutionary ladder, so of course we would fear the actions of whatever comes after us. Why should it show us mercy, when we've caused mass waves of extinction & irreparably damaged that which makes and sustains us all? Of course the central fear throughout the Westworld story is the same that runs through all corrupt tyrant powers: "what will happen if our slaves achieve autonomy?"

...machines have made thoroughly ambiguous the difference between natural and artificial, mind and body, self-developing and externally designed, and many other distinctions that used to apply to organisms and machines. Our machines are disturbingly lively, and we ourselves frighteningly inert. [P.152]

Maybe if we can’t build a god-like artilect, a designed ubermensch could be our next best bet. Construction of the self is already becoming a more collective process with each technological update. As a species, if we all just chilled for like half a minute, could we design, rear, and equip a god-like human cyborg hybrid? Let’s dream big and say we create enough of them so they can work together to fix our messes and save our asses from ourselves? ...ugh, that doesn’t even qualify as rational optimism. We’d just end up with a bunch of uberTrump Jrs. and an immortal Putin and the proletariat lifespan will continue to dwindle.

O. M. Oniyide: Hi Katie, I read your post. Oddly enough I have thought a lot about cyborgs but in a different way. A long time ago I wrote the dude who came up with the phrase but never heard back, probably because he is terribly old and might even be dead by now.

Anyway Manfred Clynes, who according to wiki is still alive, and his friend came up with the term in the 1960s in the context of humans surviving or adapting to environments that are really hostile to them. A kind of modified evolution. For example, in his mind he thought that space suits were very crude and if humans were really to dominate space we'd find a way to just change the physical body so that it can exist in space, almost naturally, instead of having to wear a big clunky suit.

It is difficult to swim in the mire of apocalyptic thoughts without wanting to blame someone for your own ass falling in. And at this moment it felt very easy to blame a lot of someones. Women around the table stared into the mid-distance as confessions fell from their mouths. “I think my parents voted for Trump.” “I should’ve gone to canvas…” “If I’d talked to him instead of blocking him, maybe I could’ve convinced…”  These little rivers always eventually join bigger streams. “White women voted for him!” “Why can’t the rust belt understand those jobs are not coming back?” “If the Voting Rights Act hadn’t been gutted by those crusty old men…” In the middle of this I got a text, asking me to join friends at an anti-Trump rally that was forming on the steps of City Hall. It seemed to me as useless an action as sitting around a table & talking. Physically moving, shouting, might at least feel more cathartic. Plus it’s difficult to turn down a spectacle.

Every time I join a march or rally, I think back to my first time at Occupy LA. Getting swept up in a wave of ideas, the air not so much electric as pulsing like a giant heartbeat. Everyone, myself included, seemed convinced that this was it, this was our moment, the 99% finally coming together in some quasi-Marxist third act hail mary to save everything at once! And of course we all know how that turned out. So even on the metro to downtown, nothing seemed to matter. Nothing would be accomplished. A party before the dawn of war, a war with casualties on only one side. And that side doesn't even recognize itself as such. What's the point of marching together when we all seem so far apart? How many of us have parents who voted against us?

A lot of yelling & zero organizing. At least, from what I saw. I suppose that was the point though: everyone felt sitting around tables, bewildered, wasn't enough, so let's go outside and yell. It makes sense in a very human way. My pals and I didn't really chant so much. It seemed all we could muster was to just witness, take it in. "Oh my gosh look, an actual effigy burning!" I pointed-- someone had clambered up a streetlight and was setting fire to a Trump pinata. "I've never seen one in real life before, how classic." These actions have been repeated & will be repeated and it just seems like the human way of things.

I've spent so many hours since the election, trying to find something positive to think towards, but my trains of thought just return to the same station. I'm not smart enough to survive the apocalypse, ugh. I just keep turning to more and more essays and lectures and other people's ideas. And while bouncing against my intellectual limits is insanely frustrating (and a frustratingly frequent occurrence) I tell myself to take solace in the fact that there are others with actual intelligence who are tackling these same issues. Perhaps not a savior in the form of an individual but a collective, an idea, some abstract messiah thing. Maybe I'll get hit by an actual train next month and none of this worrying is even worth it. It's as likely a scenario as any beyond the Absurd. But as is human nature, I still want to end on a somewhat positive note, so I re-read "A Practical Utopian's Guide to the Coming Collapse."

"At moments like this, it generally pays to go back to the history one already knows and ask: Were revolutions ever really what we thought them to be? For me, the person who has asked this most effectively is the great world historian Immanuel Wallerstein. He argues that for the last quarter millennium or so, revolutions have consisted above all of planetwide transformations of political common sense.”

Wallerstein argues that since the start of global power entities, any revolution is a planetary phenomenon. 1789 started in France, yes, but because of empire's tentacles, its effects were felt globally. The same has held true for all subsequent revolutions, with the latest being 1968. China transformed structurally, but on the American side, it felt like a failure. We didn't pull out of Vietnam any quicker than we would've without massive protests at home. But, Wallerstein points out, we were marching as much for human rights as we were against My Lai. The lasting legacy of that era is the revolution of feminism, whose radical effects have been felt globally. All the movements are intertwined now; our protests are against the apparatus of state and the limitations it puts on us, not against any one issue in particular. Today, we feel as though the protests of the 60s and 70s seem like failures, but they weren't-- the US stayed out of on-the-ground conflicts for 30 years. And when entering war post-9/11, the main objective of the military was to prevent protest uprisings at home:

"One often hears that antiwar protests in the late sixties and early seventies were ultimately failures, since they did not appreciably speed up the U.S. withdrawal from Indochina. But afterward, those controlling U.S. foreign policy were so anxious about being met with similar popular unrest—and even more, with unrest within the military itself, which was genuinely falling apart by the early seventies—that they refused to commit U.S. forces to any major ground conflict for almost thirty years. It took 9/11, an attack that led to thousands of civilian deaths on U.S. soil, to fully overcome the notorious “Vietnam syndrome”—and even then, the war planners made an almost obsessive effort to ensure the wars were effectively protest-proof. Propaganda was incessant, the media was brought on board, experts provided exact calculations on body bag counts (how many U.S. casualties it would take to stir mass opposition), and the rules of engagement were carefully written to keep the count below that.

The problem was that since those rules of engagement ensured that thousands of women, children, and old people would end up “collateral damage” in order to minimize deaths and injuries to U.S. soldiers, this meant that in Iraq and Afghanistan, intense hatred for the occupying forces would pretty much guarantee that the United States couldn’t obtain its military objectives. And remarkably, the war planners seemed to be aware of this. It didn’t matter. They considered it far more important to prevent effective opposition at home than to actually win the war. It’s as if American forces in Iraq were ultimately defeated by the ghost of Abbie Hoffman.

Clearly, an antiwar movement in the sixties that is still tying the hands of U.S. military planners in 2012 can hardly be considered a failure. But it raises an intriguing question: What happens when the creation of that sense of failure, of the complete ineffectiveness of political action against the system, becomes the chief objective of those in power?"

If the response of the state is to divide & conquer, of course the propaganda that our collective efforts are meaningless and ineffectual is a powerful weapon. To paraphrase The Invisible Committee's "To Our Friends," we don't need to force open a door to a space we already occupy; we don't need to design the party we all already belong to. Perhaps I can place hope in the knowledge that we could eventually recognize ourselves as a species with the same base goals and desires, and that collective action is the only reason we've survived as long as we have.

Or, alternately:

addendum! my pal Wale wrote an amazing response to this rambling piece, and her insight is totally worth checking out