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

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

JET - the plan

The plan is to get the Journal of Evolution and Technology onto a solid, regular publishing schedule (two full issues per year), and cement its position as the place for serious discussion of the (post)human future. The idea of a new kind of evolution of the human species, driven by increasingly intimate and internalised technology, is one whose time has come. Every day, the idea seems that little bit less "out there": it is increasingly familiar to the public, better understood, more and more plausible, and it merits examination from many viewpoints. We can really go places with this core idea, and with everything in science, philosophy, and all the other relevant disciplines, that connects with it.

At the moment, alas, we have a fancy publishing system that we all need to understand and use properly. It will also be good when I'm fully on-stream as editor-in-chief, which won't be until March ... though my first couple of weeks in the chair have seemed busy enough. We'll be moving as quickly as possible, in those circumstances to add new articles to the current issue, as and when they reach the final production stage. We do not need to wait until an issue is full before we publish individual articles that are ready.

Meanwhile, do browse the contents of earlier issues: since 1998, JET has been a fascinating on-line publication, though initially not a full-scale one, and to date not a regular one. There's plenty to think about in all those on-line back issues.

Paddy McGuinness - RIP

The great contrarian journalist and editor Paddy McGuinness died on Saturday, days after his final issue of Quadrant magazine appeared. Love him or loathe him, McGuinness was a huge force in the world of ideas here in Australia. Speaking for myself, he'll be sadly missed. He was a wonderful editor to work with, and very supportive of my work on bioethics and the (post)human future - among other topics. Much of what he accepted from me for the pages Quadrant must have driven his readership crazy, as the magazine's letters pages confirmed, but Paddy recognised quality material and cultivated talent. His support had a big part in my development as a commentator on these issues.

I'm so sorry to see him leave us, notwithstanding my disagreement with him on a pretty wide range of issues.

Vale, Paddy. I won't be able to get to the funeral on Friday, but I'll drink a glass in your honour, my friend.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

JET volume 17 - off to a good start with Tomasi article

At the Journal of Evolution and Technology we will publish articles as and when they are ready, rather than waiting for an entire volume to fill. Accordingly, volume 17 is now underway with a fine article by Alessandro Tomasi, "The Role of Intimacy in the Evolution of Technology" ... an issue which Tomasi approaches from a viewpoint within Continental philosophy, though his points about the ways in which successful technologies must be experienced as intimate are accessible (and, I think, persuasive) to readers from any educational background. I'm very pleased to have this piece available through JET, though I can't take the credit for finding it, which happened before my shift.

More material will be published very soon. We have a number of articles in late stages of production.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Atheist website blocked in Turkey

This is a disturbing story in many ways. As reported to me, the Turkish website Ateizm.org has been blocked from access within Turkey by a court order obtained by a Muslim creationist. The site is still accessible outside of Turkey, though most English speakers (including me) would need a translation for it to provide any value to them.

A more detailed account of events from the viewpoint of Ateizm.org can be found here.

One disturbing aspect is that the founders of Ateizm.org are at a great disadvantage. They cannot fight this effectively in the Turkish legal system because they have what appears to be a well-justified fear of the consequences if they reveal their true identities. As the individuals responsible for the most extensive criticism of Islam on the internet in Turkey, they may well be targets for attack by extremists - and they are clearly in no position to hire expensive security for themselves as Ayaan Hirsi Ali is forced to do outside of the Netherlands.

It is, of course, impossible for me to comment on whether their site contains any genuinely defamatory material, which seems to be the rationale for the closure. Even if it does, surely the order must be massively over-broad.

More generally, the combination of violence from extremists and the ability of creationists and others to seek court orders alleging defamation is an unbeatable one-two combination. This could make it impossible, in practice, for any robust criticism of religion, or of fundamentalist teachers, to be carried out in Turkey.

Turkey's success as a modern, secular democracy has been seen by many of us as a hopeful sign for the future - the existence proof that a country can combine its roots in Muslim traditions with a commitment to modernity and liberalism. All of this is currently under challenge - evidenced not only by this incident but by many others that display the potential fragility of Turkey's great social experiment.

Read about what has happened here, and judge for yourself.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Journal of Evolution and Technology

I have been appointed, as of today, as editor-in-chief of The Journal of Evolution and Technology ("JET") , IEET's flagship on-line refereed journal. It will take me a little time to be fully active in this role, partly for reasons that are well-known to readers of this blog. On the other hand, I've been associated with the journal for some years now as a semi-regular referee, and I already know much about how it works.

Henceforth, we plan to publish two issues per year, uploading articles and reviews to the JET site as and when they are approved and finalised.

Since its inception in 1998 (originally as The Journal of Transhumanism), JET has been publishing high-quality, fascinating, and important material about the human or post-human future. It is a key journal for transhumanist, technoprogressive, and technology-positive thought. Its implicit premise - at least on my interpretation - is that there's now a real prospect of human beings taking our further evolution into our own hands, using technological means.

That prospect merits investigation from many viewpoints - scientific, philosophical, historical, literary, and so on - but it is important that the investigation not be left in the hands of nay-sayers who are ideologically or emotionally wedded to current and historical understandings of the human condition. JET provides a high-level forum for those of us who are open to the possibility of change, whether we advocate a radical transhumanist agenda or whether we are more cautious, and simply willing to consider the issues rigorously and on their merits.

JET is open to a wide range of viewpoints, and seeks to encourage rigorous, systematic discussion of future prospects for humanity. Then again, it will never appeal to the same audience as a technoconservative journal such as The New Atlantis (but on the gripping hand, there may well be some individuals with viewpoints that are welcome in both).

There's much work to be done to raise JET's public profile and to expand its reach and prestige within the academic world, while we continue to find the outstanding articles, reviews, and other material that JET needs in order to thrive and to influence public policy. I, myself, need to think more deeply about my vision for the journal - beyond these very preliminary observations.

I'm excited to be making a start, and I'm looking forward to the challenges.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Udo on Hitler, Stalin, and bin Laden

If you don't treat yourself to reading Udo Schuklenk's blog, you should. Here's a nice piece on Hitler, Stalin, and bin Laden. Hitler was a vegetarian, but that isn't what motivated him to kill millions of Jews and others. (Unlike Hitler) Stalin was an atheist, but the millions of people whom he killed, deliberately or otherwise, died for reasons totally extraneous to Stalin's deity-free mindset. Bin Laden, on the other hand, really is motivated by his particular interpretation of Islam. To exonerate Islam, Udo says, we'd probably have to demonstrate that bin Laden's interpretation of it is wrong, which is easier said than done.

It appears to me that Islam is open to peaceful interpretations, but there is also much in its tradition that is open to bin Laden's murderous one.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Our loss - Tuesday 8 January

I want to make only a brief statement here on this blog to alert those of my friends who might read it, and who might not otherwise know ...

I lost my mother on Tuesday when she passed away in her sleep at about 1.45 pm, with just me and one of the nursing staff present as she stopped breathing. She hadn't been conscious for the best part of 48 hours. It's somewhat ironic that my father and sister were not there at the time, whereas I was; they had kept vigil all night, while I had gone back to my sister's place to rest for awhile at about 2.00 or 2.30 am. They were then getting a bit of rest while I took over the vigil.

The funeral took place today, with a very simple service exactly as Mum had wanted it.

I'm not one to make long public statements about my personal feelings, at least not here or now. Suffice to say that I'm distressed, as indeed we all are ... but especially my father who had been married to Mum for over 60 years, since they were a very young (and I might add fine-looking, since we've been poring through lots of old photographs) couple. It's a bleak time for us just now, so we're really just supporting each other emotionally.

For what I hope are obvious reasons, I will continue for some time to be a bit scarce here and elsewhere.

Sunday, January 06, 2008

Not sounding good at all

The word from my sister is that Mum's state of health has fallen further in the last few days. I'll be flying up to visit, and will probably report further in a week or so. It's not sounding good at all.

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Don't go down the Chinese Road

According to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s website, the Minister for Telecommunications, Stephen Conroy, has announced that it will be made mandatory for all internet service providers to provide clean feeds, or ISP filtering, to houses and schools. The feeds must be free of pornography and what Conroy refers to as "inappropriate material". Conroy brushed aside issues of freedom of speech in what struck me as a cavalier fashion, simply rejecting an equation of free speech with child pornography.

Should we worry?

Well ... to be honest, I'm not so concerned about the immediate impact of this. I'm confident that whatever material gets blocked on Day One will be confined to pretty nasty stuff that morally healthy people don't want to see: child pornography is obviously the main target. That said, it is still a dangerous step.

Once any government starts to control what is or is not appropriate for its citizens to see on the internet, we should all be afraid. How do we know that more and more kinds of content will not be deemed "inappropriate" by this administration (or by future ones if Kevin Rudd and his team seem too touchy-feely to introduce a truly oppressive censorship regime)? Are we really supposed to sit back complacently, and simply trust the good intentions and liberal instincts of present and future governments? Yeah, right.

Admittedly, we have some constitutional protection of political speech in this country, but it's no more than an implied limitation of legislative power, and its scope is much-debated. It does not appear expressly in the wording of the Constitution, and it could easily be weakened or eliminated by future High Court rulings. If that happens, all bets are off. All sorts of material might be "inappropriate" for reasons of state.

I think it's important to acknowledge that there will be an opt-out provision - but of course, a future administration could water down or eliminate this protection. And then there's the issue of who will have access to records of who opted out.

Will such records be available to the government or the police? Will they be able to be used in police investigations? Will it be possible for adverse inferences about individuals to be drawn from them (e.g. by police, bureaucrats, and the courts)?

No matter how well-intentioned this move is, it's a step on the path towards official control of what we can see and read, and every single such step needs to be opposed bitterly. Don't let Australia go down the Chinese Road.

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Happy New Year, everybody

I just want to wish a Happy New Year to whoever is reading this. Jenny and I went into the city to see the fireworks last night, with Corinne and Peter. That was pretty spectacular, since we had a spot on the Yarra bank right under the biggest explosions. We'd spent the day hiding from the heat, which was around the century mark on the old scale, and it looks like more of the same today.

Anyway, once again, a happy 2008 to all.