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Australian philosopher, literary critic, and professional writer. Author of FREEDOM OF RELIGION AND THE SECULAR STATE.

Monday, June 30, 2008

Hayles shadow-boxes with transhumanism

The fourth of the six articles in the special anti-transhumanism issue of The Global Spiral (June 2008) is "Wrestling with Transhumanism" by well-known critic Katherine Hayles, Distinguished Professor of English and media studies at the University of California, Los Angeles.

As with the article by Don Idhe in the same issue, this contains much that I do not quarrel with, though it does seem (despite an explicit disclaimer near the beginning) somewhat naive or presumptuous about what transhumanists do and do not know. As with Idhe's article, the legitimate points that it makes are not especially new and should be familiar to many transhumanists.

At the same time, the article has merit: there's no doubt in my mind that some, perhaps many, transhumanists get carried away with the possibilities ... and it's good to subject their thinking to a reality check. Actually, the same applies to rabidly anti-transhumanist thinkers such as Francis Fukuyama, who seems like a bio-Luddite Chicken Little imagining that transhumanism will make the sky fall in. It would be better if the whole debate about emerging technologies took place within a framework of more realistic hopes and fears.

Hayles gets off to a false start in wondering why transhumanism is still growing in popularity despite what she naively (by her own admission) thought was her knock-out blow to it a decade ago, when she claimed that it rests on an illegitimate over-extension of information theory in imagining the uploading of human minds into advanced computational devices. The difficulty that she faces here is that (as far as I can see) she never did make out her case - indeed, while I largely share her scepticism about the prospect of uploading, I suspect that she is simply out of her depth, as are most literary critics who broach such subjects, when it comes to the philosophy of mind and personal identity.

However, Hayles herself more or less acknowledges that this is a false start. As she says, there are "many versions of transhumanism, and they do not all depend on the assumption I critiqued." This is a pleasing concession for her to make, because it gives an impression that she understands the richness of current debates within the international transhumanist movement and that she will not be insensitive to diversity and nuance. Unfortunately, she immediately adds, dispelling that impression. "But all of them, I will argue, perform decontextualizing moves that over-simplify the situation and carry into the new millennium some of the most questionable aspects of capitalist ideology." This is slightly odd because she never does actually argue the case that "all" forms of transhumanism fall into the trap she identifies. Since many transhumanists, especially in Europe, appear to have anti-capitalist views grounded in socialist or social democratic thinking of one kind or another, it is highly doubtful that anyone could ever demonstrate such a thing.

All this, of course, sets aside the question of whether the "capitalist" views that Hayles dislikes are actually incorrect. She puts no actual argument against them (and nothing about her article suggests that she is particularly well-versed in political philosophy).

Again to her credit, however, she is able to write this, with which I'm pretty much in agreement:

Why then is transhumanism appealing, despite its problems? Most versions share the assumption that technology is involved in a spiraling dynamic of co-evolution with human development. This assumption, known as technogenesis, seems to me compelling and indeed virtually irrefutable, applying not only to contemporary humans but to Homo sapiens across the eons, shaping the species biologically, psychologically, socially and economically. While I have serious disagreements with most transhumanist rhetoric, the transhumanist community is one that is fervently involved in trying to figure out where technogenesis is headed in the contemporary era and what it implies about our human future. This is its positive contribution, and from my point of view, why it is worth worrying about.

Whatever Hayles's limitations, this passage demonstrates that she is no naive neo-Luddite. The assumption of technogenesis, which she endorses, puts her a long way on the path to transhumanism herself. I don't expect her to adopt the label (indeed, my own reservations about the t-word are a matter of public record), but it would be better if she confined herself to saying that she agrees with transhumanist thinkers on this basic assumption, while disagreeing with certain specific aspects of much of the transhumanist thinking that she has encountered to date. That would be more realistic, and more respectful of the people she wants to engage, than dismissing "all" transhumanist thinking as simplistic and decontextualising. Why not take a more tentative and conciliatory approach towards people with whom you share common ground? (Surely Hayles shares more common ground with thoughtful transhumanists than with some of her associates in the special Global Spiral issue.)

Most of the article consists of readings of various well-known science fiction narratives: among them, Nancy Kress's "Beggars in Spain", the novella, and Beggars in Spain, the novel ... with its sequels (not "sequel" as Hayles seems to think); Greg Bear's Darwin's Radio and Darwin's Children; and Philip K. Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and its cinematic version, Blade Runner. Considerable space is also given to James Patrick Kelly's recent novella "Mr Boy", while brief mentions are made of many other sf works, including Greg Egan's Permutation City, cited for its recognition of the horror that could come from knowing that you are an electronic copy of an original personality. She concludes this discussion with the statement that "One need not agree with Francis Fukuyama that transhumanism is 'the world’s most dangerous idea' to appreciate the critiques of transhumanism enacted in these SF fictions."

But this gets complicated for several reasons.

1. I agree with Hayles that it is worthwhile for science fiction writers to attempt to imagine the social and psychological effects of the technological and scientific innovations (the novum as Darko Suvin calls it) that are at the heart of the genre.

2. I also agree with her that sf writers' imaginative efforts may shed light on discussions of the possible social impacts of new technologies and other innovations. Related to that, I agree that the job of a scholar/critic of science fiction is a noble one, and that sensitive, in-depth critical engagement with sf texts is not to be despised. It is helpful for Hayles to report to scholars in other fields on the imaginings of science fiction writers and on how some of these might be interpreted as containing an implicit critique of certain ideas that can be found in transhumanist writings. (However, it's going too far to talk about "the critiques of transhumanism enacted in these SF fictions." The narratives concerned may criticise certain kinds of naive optimism about the future, but they are not in any sense critiques of transhumanism itself, and nor do they, in New Critical jargon, "enact" such a critique.)

3. However, we should all bear in mind that science fiction stands in various complex, and often ambiguous, relationships to technology and social change. For one thing, there is some dystopian pressure on sf writers because the (frequent) requirement for danger and suspense creates a temptation to problematise whatever technology may be depicted. Of course, it is far more complicated than that. For example, there is also a counter-tendency even for science fiction narratives with a dystopian or cautionary streak to accommodate values associated with the depicted technology. Technological innovations that are portrayed as menacing may be, at the very same time, alluring and cool - and acknowledged as such. I'm sure that Hayles is aware of all this complexity, and is simply unable to tease it out in the space available to her, but in the event it is actually Hayles who comes across as rather simplistic. Her account of science fiction and its working is somewhat thin and under-theorised. If we are to find something, perhaps much, of value in the imaginations of science fiction writers, we must engage with the phenomenon of science fiction more critically than Hayles manages to accomplish in this article.

4. The main conclusion that Hayles seems to draw from all this is that transhumanist thinkers have been naive - whereas science fiction writers have been more insightful - about the difficulties that are typically caused by technological innovations. There may be some truth in this: certainly, many of us have had encounters with naive and dogmatic transhumanists. But at the same time, there are plenty of transhumanist thinkers who are flexible in their thinking, open to new ideas, and well aware of the kinds of points that Hayles is making. Thus when she claims that transhumanists have failed to acknowledge such problems as the implications for social justice and social stability from the development of emerging technologies I am simply astounded.

In this last respect, to show that I am not being unfair to Hayles or taking her out of context, let me quote her at length:

Transhumanists recognize, of course, that contemporary technoscience is not an individual enterprise, typically requiring significant capitalization, large teams of workers, and extensive networks of knowledge exchange and distribution, but these social, technoscientific, and economic realities are positioned as if they are undertaken for the sole benefit of forward-thinking individuals. In addition, there is little discussion of how access to advanced technologies would be regulated or of the social and economic inequalities entwined with questions of access. The rhetoric implies that everyone will freely have access (as in the quotation cited above [she refers to a brief quote from Nick Bostrom]), or at least that transhumanist individuals will be among the privileged elite that can afford the advantages advanced technologies will offer. How this will play out for the large majority of people living in developing countries that cannot afford access and do not have the infrastructure to support it is not an issue.

This is correct in part. In the days when I used to take (not very much) part in the discussion on the sometimes celebrated, sometimes derided, Extropians List, I certainly encountered transhumanists who seemed, frankly, heartless when it came to issues such as these. I'm sure that what Hayles is describing exists, perhaps quite commonly.

But at the same time, the issues that she raises, far from being ignored by transhumanists, are the subject of much earnest consideration within transhumanist forums and by thinkers who are broadly sympathetic to transhumanism. If no high-profile (or low-profile if it comes to that) transhumanist thinker has yet produced a definitive answer, it is because of the difficulty of predicting the future and solving the global problems of the twenty-first century, not because the concerns raised by Hayles are new to transhumanists, who are as aware of such issues as global poverty as anybody else.

In her final paragraph, Hayles writes:

I do not necessarily agree with Fukuyama’s argument that we should outlaw such developments as human cloning with legislation forbidding it (not least because he falls back on 'human nature' as a justification), but I do think we should take advantage of every available resource that will aid us in thinking through, as far as we are able, the momentous changes in human life and culture that advanced technologies make possible—and these resources can and should include SF fictions.

No argument there. Most of that sounds fine.

But then she adds:

The framework in which transhumanism considers these questions is, I have argued, too narrow and ideologically fraught with individualism and neoliberal philosophy to be fully up to the task. It can best serve by catalyzing questions and challenging us to imagine fuller contextualizations for the developments it envisions. Imagining the future is never a politically innocent or ethically neutral act. To arrive at the future we want, we must first be able to imagine it as fully as we can, including all the contexts in which its consequences will play out.

I agree with some of this, too. But there is (let me repeat) nothing in Hayles's article to suggest that transhumanism - as opposed to certain strains of transhumanism or certain transhumanist thinkers - is "narrowly and ideologically fraught" with any particular political philosophy.

In the end, then, we can obtain a reasonably large grain of truth from this article: when we think about the future we should never assume that innovations will be introduced without negative as well as positive consequences; and the study of science fiction is of value to people who'd like to consider what those consequences might be. Science fiction is one - though certainly not the only - resource available to people, including transhumanists, who want to think about possibilities for our future.

However, transhumanists can surely acknowledge this. This is the kind of point that could be made in discussions within transhumanism, or among transhumanists and people who are broadly sympathetic, just as much as by entirely external critics. I urge Hayles to put aside her evident prejudices about the entire transhumanist movement and join in that discussion - not as someone who need ever style herself as a transhumanist (if this carries too much baggage) but as someone who shares many of transhumanism's basic ideas and could surely find transhumanist forums in which she feels at home.

Meanwhile, "Wrestling with Transhumanism" seems more like shadow-boxing with an imaginary (or at least simplified) version of transhumanism, rather than grappling with the complexities of the real thing.

1 comment:

Jon Seltin said...

Hey Russell -
enjoyed reading the article, but I really think you're being a bit hard on Hayles - to suggest the is 'out of her depth' seems a bit harsh, considering her 1999 engages in depth with what you call 'philosophy of mind and personal identity'. She is generally credited as performing one of the first truly critical explorations of disembodiment/materiality, within the fields of cybernetics, AI, robotics and artificial life. Her book is largely based on continental philosophy, drawing heavily on deconstruction and semiotics, so I think its a low-swing to suggest she's not well versed in philosophy.

She's actually in a fairly unique position, in that she's got a solid base in literary criticism, philosophy AND chemistry (in which she holds an advanced degree), so her insights tend to be a lot more technically savvy than that of other purely-cultural critics.

I think you're right in pointing out that she is a little unfair in the way she effaces the difference between different transhumanisms, but I guess her gripe isn't with some characture of transhumanism, but rather with anthropocentrism and the Humanist logic that informs almost all brands of the transhuman. While some European transhumanist movements may have a left slant, I can't think of any group that really rejects the teleological/anthropocentric(colonising/imperialistic ?) aspect of Humanism. Her attack on mind-uploading and digital consciousness is only part on a larger project to uncover the latent Humanism that's almost always transplanted into trans/posthumanism.