Steal This Singularity Part 2: The More Things Change, The More You’ll Need To Save
Aug. 07, 2023.
16 min. read. Interactions
In part two of Steal This Singularity, R.U. Sirius reflects on his experiences with transhumanism and singularitarianism, and shares his thoughts on the future of humanity.
Against Contractionism: Enabling and encouraging open minds, rather than constricting understanding with blunt labels
Steal This Singularity Annotated #2
Four score or make that four columns ago, I presented Part 1 of Steal This Singularity Annotated, promising: “Every fourth one of these Mindplex articles will be an annotated and edited excerpt from my multipart piece titled Steal This Singularity, originally written some time in 2008. This will continue until I get to the end of the piece or the Singularity comes. Annotation is in gray italics.”
As it turns out, this second presentation will just about cover it. I’m so happy with how I critiqued (made fun of?) my transhumanist and singularitarian friends that I may not need to do a lot of annotating.
Part Three: The More Things Change, The More You’ll Need To Save
It was 2008 — maybe a week or two into my first experience working with ‘official’ transhumanism (as if) as editor of h+ magazine. I was being driven down from Marin County to San Jose to listen to a talk by a scientist long associated with various transhumanoid obsessions, among them nanotechnology, encryption and cryonics. As we made the two-hour trip, the conversation drifted to notions of an evolved humanity, a different sort of species — maybe corporeal, maybe disembodied, but decidedly post-Darwinian, and in control of its instincts. I suggested that a gloomy aspect of these projections was that sex would likely disappear, since those desires and pleasures arose from more primitive aspects of the human psyche. My driver told me that he didn’t like sex because it was a distraction, a waste of brain power… not to mention sloppy. As a boomer who was obsessed with sex most of my life, as I’ve hit my seventies, I’ve had the peculiar experience of completely forgetting about sex for days at a time. Nonetheless, as a matter of principle, I still believe that repressed sexual energy is a giant badness. It’s essential to my distaste for right-wing fundamentalist Christians, the Taliban and the like.
Putting aside my personal experience, which has caused me to view my earlier life’s priorities with a certain note of bewilderment, I must confess to a curiosity regarding the reports that young people today are far less interested in sex. Is it a loss of male testosterone so much worried about by right-wing talking heads? Is it an evolutionary mutation? Was the driver I thought I was making fun of in the above comments on to something? Is the oncoming climate apocalypse perhaps rearranging some instincts? (Can I suggest that instincts exist? And do I dare to eat a peach? And can I find a classy way to exit this subject?)
I arrived at a Pizza Hut in an obscure part of San Jose. This gathering of about 15–20 transhumanoids would take place over cheap pizza in the back room that was reserved for the event. There was even a projector and a screen.The speaker — a pear shaped fellow clad in dress pants held up by a belt pulled up above his stomach — started his rap. I have a funny memory of a couple of MONDO 2000 staffers going to an extropian gathering at the end of the ‘80s. Jas Morgan and Morgan Russell (both of whom had a certain dandyish élan) and were accustomed to the classy party extravagances dished up by Queen Mu at the MONDO house, complete with her homemade desserts returned with noses upturned. The party was in a dicey little under-decorated house in one of the Bay Area’s strip mall suburbs with chips and dip and Coca-Cola. It was noted that the attendees looked like they didn’t pay much attention to their misshapen bodies nor did they seem to have any sort of fundamental aesthetic for making life extraordinary. They wondered at the Extropians’ desire for more of that life – and suggested that maybe quality rather than quantity should be considered. Now, I’m not sure how I should think about this. I’ve been thinking hard about why people outside urban areas were attracted to Donald Trump. I think it’s partly because they could sense and identify with his resentment of the culture-makers of New York City. He wanted to fit in but they considered him tacky and lacking class. Yes, class. Do liberals and even many leftists have class? And what does that say?
Somehow related, there’s this funny and interesting piece by Sam Kriss, in which he textually executes all hipsters before obsoleting nerd culture. Let me say this right out loud: MONDO 2000/1990s cyberculture was hipster-nerd back when hipster wasn’t yet a swear word. Now we’re just washed up on the shoreline of cultural desolation with few identity life rafts to relate to, and mere survival rearing its jeering head. We’ll see fire and we’ll see rain.
As I recall, he predicted major nanotechnology breakthroughs (real nanotechnology i.e. molecular machines capable of making copies of themselves and making just about anything that nature allows extremely cheaply) within our extended lifetimes, allowing us, among other things, to stay healthy indefinitely and finally migrate into space.
I recall him presenting a scenario in which all of us — or many of us — could own some pretty prime real estate; that is, chunks of this galaxy, at the very least that we could populate with our very own advanced progeny (mind children, perhaps.) I’m a bit sketchy on the details from so long ago, but it was a very far out vision of us united with advanced intelligences many times greater than our own either never dying or arising from the frozen dead and, yes, each one getting this gigantic chunk of space real estate to populate. (That these unlivable areas can be made livable either by changing it or ourselves or both with technology is the assumption here.)
Once the speaker had laid out the amazing future as scientifically plausible, he confessed that he was mainly there to make a pitch. Alcor — the cryonics company that he was involved in — needed more customers. As he delineated how inexpensively one could buy an insurance policy to be frozen for an eventual return performance, he began to emphasize the importance of a person in cryonics not being considered legally dead… because that person could then build interest on a savings account or otherwise have his or her value increase in a stock market that was — by all nanocalculations — destined to explode into unthinkable numbers (a bigger boom).
For the bulk of his talk, the speaker dwelt on the importance of returning decades or maybe even a century or so hence to a handsome bank account. It was one of those “I can’t emphasize this enough” sort of talks that parents used to give to their 20-something kids about 401ks.
As the floor opened up to audience participation, the questions continued to dwell primarily upon the financial aspects of suspension and its aftermath. Insurance. Savings. Investments. Finally, a woman raised her hand and asked something along the lines of… “In light of all the stuff you’re predicting, will US currency still be meaningful in that future?”
An audible groan went up from a portion of the gathering, implying, “fuckin’ stupid hippie asking that ridiculous question again.”
So there they were accepting…
• Raising people from the dead
• Becoming more or less immortal
• Making intelligences many times more powerful and capable than our own
• Individual earth humans privately owning big chunks of the galaxy
…but they could not imagine that the local (local in time, perhaps, more that space) currency and the nuances of its valuation and growth would be irrelevant in that envisioned world. Given that transhumanists are among those pushing forward cryptocurrencies, I find it curious that our speaker didn’t consider the likelihood of some extreme discontinuity in currency, rendering those savings and investments meaningless. Transhumanist culture – before and after the 2008 financial collapse – has a trust in finance management to glue obsoleting accounts to futuristic ones. Late-stage capitalism isn’t late-stage at all. Its coming death has been greatly exaggerated. It’s unbreakable: the capital you possess now will somehow transfer seamlessly into whatever system is collaboratively summoned by or with our smart machines.
This, it seemed to me, represented a stunning and peculiar kind of stasis sitting at the heart of radical technological change or the imaginings of same, a clinging to the most trivial and boring sort of continuity by the very sort of people predicting extreme “disruption” and radical discontinuity. The Singularity then, if any, would present before us as an unthinkably complex quantum accountant, as — figuratively speaking — a godlike 1950s bespectacled nebbish, a bean counter (literalized already by the fashion for “quantified life.”)
Part 4: The Worm Earns (Or It Can Fuck Off and Die)
Cut to a Singularity Summit that same year, also down in the sainted city of San Jose. During one of the talks, the speaker, Marshall Brain, at that time the host of the TV Show Factory Floor and author of Robotic Nation spoke about the exponential acceleration of robot technology that the conference was, in its essence, about. He noted that the degree of automation that was soon to arrive would lead to such a loss of jobs that it would be necessary to start providing people with a guaranteed income.
This time, it wasn’t a slight groan that arose from the gathered transhumanoids. There was actual hissing from a substantial segment of the audience. It was the first and only time I ever heard this kind of response at one of these gatherings.
(Transhumanoids tend to pride themselves on a Spock-like calm logic. They are not rowdy sorts.) Guaranteed income has gained popularity since. Possibly the situation is reaching the point where you either have to kill the poor or hand out some free tickets; or Andrew Yang’s presidential campaign charmed the pants off of a few hardline libertarians or perhaps, upon noting a rise in working class union militancy, some anarcho-capitalists are thinking they’d better throw the dog a bone.
Again, allow me to contextualize. Here we were at a conference about the Technological Singularity — the time upcoming soon, according to most singularitarians, when we would design intelligences that — in the words of original singularitarian Vernor Vinge — would be to our intelligence as we are to the worms. Nonbiological life would be more competent than us in every way imaginable. And, in fact, even stopping short of the singularity, we were hearing from a whole bunch of speakers about the rise of machines doing more with less better than us in nearly every field of endeavor. And yet, here again, the Infallible Papacy of Contemporary Currency raised its head, angrily this time — with the emotional/ideological undertow undoubtedly ranging from the Randian/libertarian virtues of being financially “self-made” combined with the immorality of assisting anyone not so self-made as one’s self…. to the Calvinist idea of the ennobling nature of work.
That the very same people that can applaud building intelligences that make them about as interesting and useful as a worm can get their knickers into a twist over the idea of humans not having to “earn” tickets to live is indicative of a Calvinist/Randian determination to punish “slackers” even in the face of an endlessly self-replicating, robot-delivered “free lunch.”
Incidentally, during a lunch break following Brain’s talk, I was explaining to a friend why the audience had hissed at Brain when a large, heavy-set man standing behind me on line turned beet red and started shouting at me about how many people were killed by the Chinese communists and how capitalism had defeated communism because planned economies don’t work. I didn’t engage with him, but I would now point out that the nation states and their economies that outlasted Marx-Leninism were the United States, which had a New Deal mid-20th Century, and the European “welfare states” that this beet red fellow no doubt refers to as “socialistic.” A lot of Republican-influenced persons have been convinced in recent years (by people who know better) that centrist Democrats like President Biden are communists. The term is bandied about virtually without context by politicians that are also appealing to these same people with populist anti-corporate and, in some sense, anticapitalist rhetoric. I suppose this goes back to Mussolini. Nothing new here.
Indeed, what Brain was suggesting was not collective farms, totalistic planned economies and the eventual end of all private property, but merely a logical extension of the “welfare state” in response to the conditions predicted (and already starting to occur) by technophile futurists.
Or maybe not even that. During the ’70s, many libertarians, even Ayn Rand quasi-acolyte Milton Freidman, suggested less bureaucratic paths to guaranteed income, once workers were replaced by machines. So, in concrete terms, the barbarism that doesn’t want to resolve superfluous labor and other forms of exclusion from the economy may be more a function of the psychological acceptance of post-Reagan/Thatcher conditions than it is of Randian ideology. (People younger than myself have grown up stepping over the homeless on their way to whatever for their entire lives. The scale of homelessness that continues to exist is a post-Reagan phenomenon).
Part 5: There’ll Be Pie in the Sky When You Don’t Die
The conservative or apolitical transhumanist/singularitarian argument against the Steal This Singularity approach is, fundamentally, that it’s unnecessary. The tech will produce democratized abundance and liberties beyond our wildest imaginings and all we need to do is hang on tight and support science and technology and, generally, not stir too much shit up. I call this the “there’ll be pie in the sky when you don’t die” argument, which is a play off of a Woody Guthrie satire, which is, in turn, about 40 times more obscure to young 21st Century Americans than even an Abbie Hoffman reference. A lot has changed since I wrote this in 2008. Not only are a lot of younger people fairly radicalized leftists, a pretty strong sense of history is emerging among some (fostering bizarre reactions in the wilds of Florida and elsewhere). Also, within this milieu, tech negativity has gone a bit too wild. (I must follow up on this theme soon.) GenXers and older millennials really just want to go back in time to before the internet existed.
Basically, the narrative goes that we’re going from home/desktop media, which gave all of us the equivalent of a printing press and broadcast studio from which to have a voice in the world to 3D home printing i.e. manufacturing. If we get molecular technology and tie that in with 3D manufacturing, every man and woman can make what they need from very little in their homes. Of course, that assumes homes, but that’s one brief example of a path to democratized abundance that seemingly doesn’t require any political activism.
Of course, the past and the present are prologue, even in consideration of technologies as disruptive as those being promoted and predicted by transhumanoids and singularitarians. Such was my point in Part Three of this mess about folks clinging to today’s currency as a life raft while sailing about the entire galaxy visiting other property owners. We have both the willingness and the talent to snatch scarcity out of the jaws of abundance and oppression out of the jaws of liberation. We do it today when we impose austerity based on the abstraction of global debt and when we let the US-based National Security Industrial Complex build one-way transparency by using the same now-completed Virtual Panopticon to shield itself from investigation while having full access to everybody else’s data.
Since the dawn of the digital culture, there has been a tug of war between the notion of
• Free — stuff that can be easily copied and shared should be shared, because otherwise you create scarcity in the face of nearly limitless (virtual) wealth
• Business — the systemic legacy of selling intellectual and creative stuff, starting companies that lock replicable bits behind turnstiles and make a business of it. Bill Gates took the side against free and did very well by it.
As much protested by the likes of Jaron Lanier, creative artists and writers are now stuck in the middle of this inconclusive dialectic.
During the early 1990s, digital countercultural idealists trumpeted the idea of free. There was a broad feeling amongst those of us at play in the fields of the arising tech revolution that if the anarchic shockwaves of shifting social relations brought about by — among other things — the digitization of cultural stuff and the resultant ease with which that stuff could be copied unto infinity and accessed from anywhere hit us, then we would happily surf those crazy waves of change.
The other part of that deal, as many of us perceived it, was that everything else had to change too. We knew that the end of scarcity in the digital realm would be “heightening the contradictions” (as they say) in the industrial capitalist model. We assumed that either capitalism would rise to the challenge by finding ways to support those disintermediated or displaced by technical change — or it would be forcibly altered or dissipated in the forward rush of boundary defying technologies.
Rather, we’ve been subjected to that same stasis — stuck in these same primitive currency valuations and their correspondent debts — and we stand today as perfect examples of what could not only continue but expand under the regimen of home manufacturing — that is, the utter disintermediation and abandonment of formerly wage earning (and eventually, business-making) people for the crime of not being able to come up with a sublime enough hustle in the midst of satiated needs to get some other human being to pass those currency tickets that legitimize his or her existence to hir.
We shall see. As a famous poet once said (I’m paraphrasing): First they disintermediated the livelihood of the musicians, and I did not speak out for I wasn’t a musician. Then they disintermediated the livelihood of the writers, and I did nothing for I wasn’t a writer. Then they automated the programmers, and suddenly a whole lot of libertarians decided that guaranteed income was a thing. Not bad guesses for 2008.
Part 6: White Babbits (2008)
Yes I did top the whole thing off with some song lyrics. They are now a song and a video.
One pill makes you smarter
And one pill makes you small
And the ones that mother gives you
Ritalin or adderall
And your phallus
Needs Viagra after all
And if you go fleecing Babbitts
‘Cause the banks are gonna fall
Tell ’em the hookah smoking anarchist
Has got you by the balls
Call alice — she’s totally appalled
White men on the radio
Get off on telling you who to hate
And your friend has joined the teabags
And you spend your weekends straight
And your phallushas a Cialis date
When logic and proportion
Have fallen sloppy dead
And the fat cats are aging backwards
While your friends are filled with dread
Remember what the lab rat said
Freeze your head!
Freeze your head !