If Only Glenn Beck Were a Cyborg

While the media and blogosphere spent their August obsessively reporting and debating Glenn Beck’s “Restoring Honor” rally in Washington, D.C., a more important gathering with far greater political implications took place two weeks earlier yet went totally ignored by the media. The fifth-annual Singularity Summit was held in San Francisco this past August 14-15. The conference featured a roster of entrepreneurs and futurists and who led the conference goers in a celebration of the transformative power of technoscience and the coming technorapture of what they call The Singularity. The term, Singularity, coined by Vernor Vinge in 1993 and popularized by Ray Kurzweil, an author, entrepreneur and more recently the high priest of futurism, refers to the coming transcendence of science and technology in society.

The singularity movement, made up of university scientists, technocapitalists and military funders, organizes itself around a unbounded faith in exponential advancements in computing technology, nanotechnology and bioengineering that will, they claim, inexorably lead to The Singularity: the moment when technoscientific progress will send both technology and humanity past a profound threshold where life as we know it will take on a new form. This technogenesis, as many call it, will usher in a world where, in its most fantastic elaborations, we can create clones of ourselves and upload our consciousness as a way to achieve immortality; a world where we can genetically engineer ourselves around the biological constraints that currently make use human; where we can become not only cybernetic organisms but an entirely different species.
The millenarian, tent-revival fervor of many of the devotees is a product of the constant preaching coming from a growing priesthood of futurists and technologists who anticipate a world of rapid but controlled techno-human coevolution. The annual summit, a strange ceremony of the coming Singularity, is one of many outlets that express this enthusiasm. The journal, H+ (Humanity Plus), along with a host of institutions, centers and even universities advance a research agenda many refer to as “transhumanism” in which the problems of human intelligence and immortality are primary subjects.

Despite the social and scientific significance of such research, popular coverage of the event and the movement has been either nonexistent or has adopted the techno-claims of transhumanists with an uncritical zeal that matches the enthusiasm of the participants. But that makes sense, doesn’t it? After all, aren’t the benefits of science and technology obvious and self-evident? The signs of material progress are everywhere. Technological advances, particularly medical technologies, have delivered important improvements to life expectancy, child mortality and disease eradication to name just a few. And isn’t criticism of technology always a form of backward looking, fear-based nostalgia?

Well, not entirely. The long held progressive view of technology took hit after hit in the twentieth century. Barbaric world wars, the possibility of nuclear apocalypse, and the failure of either industrial capitalism or state communism to resolve social problems such as poverty and inequality combined to throw the progressive view of technology into doubt. But instead of a new skepticism of technology and science taking root, a reenergized theology of technology emerged instead. The singularity movement reflects the peak of this shift. Its claims of human perfectibility resonate with a new view of social progress rooted not in social institutions but rather in the individual. In a post-communist, post 9/11 world, social progress, it seems, has become a function of cumulative acts of self-improvement. Progress, disconnected from collective social projects, has been reorganized and harmonized with the new faith in the individual. In this new world-view, the individual is the agent of social change and H+ serves as the Oprah Magazine of this new faith. The erosion of faith in social institutions as a path to progressive change has left the individual, in Ayn Rand-like glory, at the center of progressive politics.

First, some history. In 1998, the World Transhumanist Association (WTA) was founded, according to one member, “to defend the right of individuals in free and democratic societies to use new technologies that overcome the limitations of the human body…” So WTA works to guarantee “safe, universal and voluntary access to [transhumanist technologies]. Because ultimately, it’s all about the little guy finally having a chance to not only overcome the biological limitations we all have as human beings but also the social limitations imposed on him.”

Despite the democratic rhetoric, the interest in the singularity by corporate and military interests provides a clue as to the direction and social implication of transhumanist technology. In 2006, Stanford University hosted the first Singularity Summit and brought science fiction authors, start-up CEOs, scientists and speakers, like Bill McKibben and others, to examine the social implications of Ray Kurzweil’s prediction of a “coming merger of human and machine intelligence [that] will mark the next stage in the evolution of life.” Google, along with a host of other corporate sponsors, created Singularity University, where students can pay tuition of more than $25,000 for a 10-week program where they can get “really excited about the idea of biology as the new it industry.” Transhumanism, it seems, is really more about corporatism.

Indeed as Katherine Hayles has pointed out, “transhumanist rhetoric concentrates on individual transcendence; at transhumanist websites, articles, and books, there is a conspicuous absence of considering socioeconomic dynamics beyond the individual.” And platitudes about inclusiveness aside, the Transhumanist road is not one traveled by “the little guy.”

And corporations aren’t the only institutions driving the transhumanist agenda. Futurists like Kurzweil admit that the breakthroughs of the kind they anticipate require huge commitments of money and resources. And so alliances are hatched among scientists and corporate and military funders in pursuit of technological advances that they claim are undertaken for the sole benefit of individual self-improvement. Kurzweil for example envisions the Singularity as a techno-advance that will serve the general social good of society, and toward this end he pursues an enthusiastic research collaboration with the U.S. Army.

And while the progressive media refused to buy Beck’s self-serving religious piety in his “Restoring Honor” rally, they have bought the singularity silliness without questions. Instead of wondering how military-funded technologies will somehow become egalitarian, the Huffington Post is charmed by the “unbounded optimism and realism” of the movement. Instead of noting that the Defense Advanced Research Products Agency (DARPA), the venture capitalists of military violence, funds dozens of the techno-dreams drawn from the movement, The Daily Kos is instead “stunned at the reactionary attitudes” of the skeptics.

The truth is not the techno-utopia described at the conference or in the pages of H+. The singularity movement is encouraged and sponsored by a malevolent coterie of military and corporate interests in search of a technotranscendence that serves to reinforce inequality rather than the dream of human transcendence. Those who should be offering skepticism are blinded, it seems, by the truth claims and seemingly self-evident goodness of technoscience. But the singularity movement is far from progressive and the appealing possibility of technosolutions to our most intractable social and environmental issues masks frightening social and ecological implications.

The “wildly improbable dreams of the ‘perfectibility of Man’” as Leo Marx put it has a long and disturbing history. The scientists behind the Human Genome Project and the corporations profiting from genetic engineering, and the militaries interested in bioengineering are not the first to express techno-enthusiasm for the possibilities of technology and science to transform what it means to be human. Throughout the 1920s and 30s, eugenicist scientists celebrated the power of science and technology to cleanse the human genome and produce a new pure human race.

Eugenicist “scientists” convinced state and local authorities throughout the U.S. to sterilize tens of thousands of Americans. Thousands more were institutionalized and the “science” of eugenics came to serve as the central scientific principle in Nazi Germany. The coordinated campaign of “scientific” eugenics in the pursuit of human perfectibility produced tens of thousands of victims in the U.S. and millions worldwide who were guilty only of being poor, rural, uneducated or “unfit” according the “scientific” criteria.

The dark side of eugenics hid behind the edifice of science and the scientists who advanced the goals of eugenics policed the building. They painted their critics as uniformed technophobes who lacked the necessary scientific background to comment or criticize. Arrogant claims of technotranscendence are being elaborated once again, this time by singularity movement scientists who ignore the social costs and inequalities of an emerging military-led technocapitalist version of progress.

And more troubling still is that, despite the disturbing and violent history of science and technology applied to the question of human perfectibility through racial and class superiority, the singularity movement enjoys nearly universal praise from both conservative and progressive media outlets. Their futurist claims charm bloggers and reporters from across the political spectrum, from Forbes to the Daily Kos, from Wired Magazine to the Huffington Post.

There are those, however, for whom the claims of human perfectibility give pause. But to the singularity crowd critics who question the wisdom of, say, human genetic engineering are uninformed “neo-Luddites and technophobes.” And to those concerned that the technology could serve to reinforce existing social inequalities by, for example, increasing the power of the corporations and militaries that control the technologies, they declare, “transhumanists… all share the value of rational thinking, freedom, tolerance, democracy and concern for our fellow human beings.”

We believe them at our own risk. The inventors and popularizers of any technology are rarely the best judges of the social implications and future applications of technologies. As the cultural critic Lewis Mumford warned, technological progress is not a function of any essential quality and inherent driver within technology, but rather reflects a deliberate effort by individuals and institutions to drive technology as a means to achieve certain economic and political ends. As “the hand-mill gives you society with the feudal lord” wrote Karl Marx in the Poverty of Philosophy, “the steam-mill, society with the industrial capitalist.” What kind of society does science and technology directed and controlled by military and corporate interests give us?

Mumford concluded that when technology was developed, controlled and rationalized by capitalists, it served class interests and capitalist accumulation. Despite the optimism of scientists, he came to realize that faith in the “serviceability of the machine” was really about service to capitalist enterprise. Progress in technology was not an inexorable force, and certainly not an egalitarian force of social change, but rather progress in technology, he concluded, could be charted in the United States for its ability to serve the needs of capital over the needs of society.

The most important scientific institutions, the largest U.S. corporations, and the most prominent academics gave legitimacy and momentum to the long eugenic nightmare in the U.S. In 1902 Stanford President David Starr Jordan elaborated a eugenics visions in which human perfectibility through science offered the only path to human liberation. Today, Stanford University once again celebrates human perfectibility through the Singularity Institute. Once again prominent academic scientists contribute to the fiction that technology is somehow always autonomous, benevolent, and to the benefits of everyone.

Eugenics was, among other things, a profitable industry for IBM. And once again the dream of human perfectibility is proving to be the new “it” industry. It is bankrolled by venture capitalists and military interests who anticipate super profits. The Singularity does not anticipate human liberation but offers the conditions of permanent capitalist social relations and the bioengineering of bourgeois values. The singularity movement is old-fashioned eugenics with better techniques passing itself off as pragmatic postmodernism.

While there are those interested in developing a politics of technology that interrogates the social and environmental costs of technological change, it’s rarely the critical version offered by Mumford but more often one that ignores the political economy of technological change and instead focuses on a superficial politics of pollution or negative externalities. But the pressing political need made evident by the rise of the singularity movement is the necessity of a politics of technology that considers the social costs of military technologies of human perfectibility.

Technological change transforms society but never in the way its enthusiasts predict. Technological change works to reconstitute the conditions not just of production but of survival in capitalist society in ways that transform the structure of our interests. What kind of society is created, for example, when human genetic engineering is controlled by corporate interests? For whom does that society serve if not those who control the technologies for profit? This is a particularly germane question for the singularity movement given who’s funding and profiting from the technologies whose praises the singularity movement sings.

The silly musings of singularity’s futurists and technologists make their utopian visions sound like episodes of the Jetsons. But the bourgeois dream of class domination and faith in technoscience hide its corporate face with scientific fact, military control with techno-enthusiasm, and ruling class ideology for general human benefit.

So why the lack of skeptical consideration? The silly Techno-capitalist-transcendent language of the singularity movement finds broad social acceptance because of a remarkably underdeveloped politics of technology on the political left. To the easily fooled, The Singularity looks like a) a good idea, b) a baffling idea beyond the ability of radical politics to critique, or c) a silly science-fictiony idea not worth addressing. But it’s none of the above. Instead it represents the highest aspirations of reactionary politics to foreclose the possibility of radical social change.

So, what would such a critical politics of technology look like? And how can a radical politics of technology overcome the widely held belief that technology is always and everywhere a progressive force? First, we need to take “things” seriously. As Langdon Winner has argued, the artifacts of technology, once unleashed, advance a politics the reveal the inner logic of their design. The ridiculously low bridges Robert Moses constructed on the Long Island Parkway were designed to exclude the poor and people of color. The low bridges excluded all but single passenger cars and reserved the beaches for middle and upper class New Yorkers. Moses’s bridges were technological tools of racist city planning.

Many of the technologies that singularity movement scientists celebrate are funded by corporate behemoths and the U.S. military. If the costs of the benefits of technology are paid with our own techno-dependence, then the technologies of the singularity movement promise to intensify corporate control and military authority in society.

Second, SM draws its intellectual force from a long history of technoscience claims to human perfectibility, such as the eugenics movement. Just as the language of science and the “inevitability” of technological progress blinded millions to the darker side of eugenics, the arrogant, uncritical celebration of technotranscendence disguises the reactionary logic of The Singularity. The transcendence implies an eclipse of biological limits and therefore of social relations thus foreclosing the possibility of social and political struggle. The sparkling promise of technoscience blinds even the most obvious critics to this frightening premise. The Singularity does not anticipate human liberation but instead announces the zenith of bourgeois values like efficiency, productivity and standardization germlined into the human genome.

But is all off this even possible? Isn’t this all just technological pie in the sky? Probably, The Singularity moment is after all not science, but rather ideology. But that’s just the thing the left refuses to say.

DAVID CORREIA is a Visiting Assistant Professor in the American Studies Department at the University of New Mexico. He teaches classes in Environment, Science and Technology and writes about environmental politics, science and New Mexican history. He can be reached at dcorreia(at)unm.edu

David Correia is the author of Properties of Violence: Law and Land Grant Struggle in Northern New Mexico and a co-editor of La Jicarita: An Online Magazine of Environmental Politics in New Mexico