Assorted impressions and scenes from the H+ Summit

[A few more posts about last weekend’s H+ Summit at Harvard.]
Before I get to my final thoughts on the 2010 H+ Summit, I’d like to share some images from the conference, as well as a smattering of impressions I had on the large number of talks to which I wasn’t able to devote full posts:
One presenter — Alex Backer, I believe — suggested that living longer will force us to focus more on the future. But this seems contrary to the ethos of transhumanism, for much as it promises great might and riches in the future, the future matters only inasmuch as it holds the possibility for greater pleasures in the present. As William Gibson recently wrote: “If you’re fifteen or so, today, I suspect that you inhabit a sort of endless digital Now, a state of atemporality enabled by our increasingly efficient communal prosthetic memory…. The Future, capital-F, be it crystalline city on the hill or radioactive post-nuclear wasteland, is gone. Ahead of us, there is merely…more stuff. Events.”
Yuval Levin’s distinction between the “anthropology of innovation” and the “anthropology of generations” is instructive here: the future Backer has in mind is not posterity, or the future for our children — two concepts that transhumanism pushes to the margins — but one that happens to us. So, Backer is saying, we will finally have a reason to worry about the effect of our actions on the future, because we personally will be around to suffer the consequences. Self-interest tempering self-interest.
James Hughes and Natasha Vita-More focus on their breathing,at the request of presenter M. A. Greenstein.
Andrea Kuszewski spoke about how to increase your cognitive capacity. Sometimes, she says, you need to use technology less. For example, GPS makes it easier to get around but weakens your cognitive abilities relative to finding your way around by yourself. Technological enhancement versus the benefits of self-improvement and self-reliance: there’s a fraught pair of transhumanist imperatives if I’ve ever heard of one.
The Harvard Mark I electro-mechanical computer, outside the conference hall.

Speaking of fraught transhumanist imperatives, Andrew Hessel’s talk reminds me that it’s really quite silly that transhumanists still adopt the pretense of being environmentalists. Modern-day environmentalism owes a huge debt to Romantic thinkers, who elevated sublime experiences of nature above the scientific hyper-rationalist view of nature prevalent in their day. Transhumanists, of course, can mount no such defense of nature. Their core views are either indifferent to nature in their focus on virtuality, or else revolted by nature in its original sins of death and suffering.

The best defense they can mount of nature consistent with their ideology is to talk vaguely about “preserving our biological heritage,” which calls to mind the Joni Mitchell lyrics: “They took all the trees and put them in a tree museum, then they charged the people a dollar and a half to see them.”

David Orban, a conferencegoer, and her little dog too.

Melanie Swan asked the audience how many of them have gotten genetic tests; to my eye, about a quarter of the conferencegoers raised their hands.

Ron Bailey

In his talk at the conference, Reason magazine science writer Ron Bailey used a common transhumanist trope, comparing the end of laws discriminating against racial minorities to the end of laws discriminating against another supposed minority — the enhanced. Bailey only does this implicitly, but it’s funny how often criticism of transhumanism gets explicitly compared to chauvinism for white males, since most transhumanists are, as most of the attendees at this conference were, males and predominantly white.

Aside from Bailey’s disdain for democracy, it’s worth pointing out that he also groups legal restrictions on embryonic stem cell research under the umbrella of “democratic tyranny,” yet evinces no concern for exercising tyranny over the rights of these beings.

Bailey also noted that it’s hard for this movement to form political coalitions among minorities as previous civil rights movements have, because of the small problem that there aren’t any enhanced humans. Whoops. This trifling fact indicates much bigger problems for the ontological anarchy of transhumanism than Bailey lets on.
Ron Bailey and a conference attendee, through the looking-glass.

Speaking of the dominant male representation among transhumanists, it’s worth pointing out that there were many women speakers at this conference — far more than the lone one at the last Singularity Summit.

One of the most hilariously earnest tweets of the conference came in response to Bailey’s talk. Twitterer anarchytweet (!) wrote, “To Ronald Bailey: Do you think some form of anarchy could combat the tyranny of the majority without destroying civilization?” (This gets me to wondering if anyone has ever un-ironically tweeted “Anarchy in the UK!” from an AT&T iPhone.)
Scenes from the after-party, in someone’s awesome converted-garage nerd-paradise workspace.
During a break, one of the organizers tested out the sound system by playing Fleetwood Mac’s “Rhiannon” off of his iPod. Great song. Do you think posthumans will ever still sit around listening to Fleetwood Mac? Is this an activity beneath beings who will spend their time having sex with 10,000 other consciousnesses at once? Or does this just mean they’ll have to switch to listening to Darude and John Digweed?
More scenes from the after-party. Aubrey de Grey at right.

Millie Ray gave a brief overview of embryonic stem cells versus induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells. She gave only the slightest mention in passing to the fact that “a lot of the ethical concerns” are bypassed via iPS cells — but, typical of the focus of this conference, didn’t mention at all what those concerns might be.

The talks on the first day were plagued by various technical problems, particularly on Apple computers, that delayed the presentations. The organizers joke this off by noting that at least it’s not as bad as Steve Jobs’s recent embarrassment with Apple products not working at an Apple conference. Yeah, except Steve Jobs is only suggesting that we purchase his computers, not that we literally live in them.

During one of the longer stretches where the audience was sitting and waiting for a technical issue to be resolved, a woman sitting near me turned to her friend and remarked, apparently unsarcastically, “I hate technology.”
Heather Knight charms organizers and attendees.

Much of this conference was just a hodgepodge of people presenting whatever random research or project they’re working on, and attempting to puff it up in significance. One of the worst/best examples of this is Morris Johnson, one of the first presenters on Day 2. He was plugging some project of his, but seemed to have no idea of what it was or how it worked. Tweeters described it as “unwitting comedy,” asked “What is this?,” and wondered “wtf Morris Johnson is saying to us at #hplus: is this an ISO-9001 process talk? An AmWay presentation? Hemp advocacy? Don’t get it.”

A cockroach suffers indignity during Timothy Marzullo’s talk.

Relatedly, Russell Whitaker, aka @OrthoNormalRuss, had some wonderful tweets (I can’t believe I am using those words) at this conference. Just a few here, here, here, and here.
Tweeter @mrgarlic noted, “Ran into Ray K by sink in the mens room. Not how I imagined our first meeting.” Same thing happened to me with both Kurzweil and Aubrey de Grey, and I had the same thought. They’ve made themselves out to be so above the earthly concerns of humanity that you don’t quite expect it. Which reminds me of Milan Kundera:

When I was small and would leaf through the Old Testament retold for children and illustrated in engravings by Gustave Doré, I saw the Lord God standing on a cloud. He was an old man with eyes, nose, and a long beard, and I would say to myself that if He had a mouth, He had to eat. And if He ate, He had intestines. But that thought always gave me a fright, because even though I come from a family that was not particularly religious, I felt the idea of a divine intestine to be sacrilegious…. In the second century, the great Gnostic master Valentinus resolved the damnable dilemma by claiming that Jesus “ate and drank, but did not defecate.”

As for Kurzweil, well, I am sure I am not the first to observe this, but given the number of vitamins he takes every day, he must have the world’s most expensive urine.

Audience members rapt at the end of Kurzweil’s talk.
There have been several improbable names at this conference. We already know that Natasha Vita-More and Max More changed their names, as have others in the transhumanist camps (“Wrye Sententia,” anyone?). But what about people like Jessica Scorpio and Hank Hyena?
Conference farewells.
The scene outside the conference, in Harvard meatspace.

Transhuman Ambitions and the Lesson of Global Warming

Anyone who believes in the science of man-made global warming must admit the important lesson it reveals: humans can easily alter complex systems not of their own cohesive design but cannot easily predict or control them. Let’s call this (just for kicks) the Malcolm Principle. Our knowledge is little but our power is great, and so we must wield it with caution. Much of the continued denial of a human cause for global warming — beyond the skepticism merited by science — is due to a refusal to accept the truth of this principle and the responsibility it entails.

Lake Hamoun, 1976-2001,
courtesy UNEP

And yet a similar rejection of the Malcolm Principle is evident even among some of those who accept man’s role in causing global warming. This can be seen in the great overconfidence of climate scientists in their ability to understand and predict the climate. But it is far more evident in the emerging support for “geoengineering” — the notion that not only can we accurately predict the climate, but we can engineer it with sufficient control and precision to reverse warming.

It is unsurprising to find transhumanist support for geoengineering. Some advocates even support geoengineering to increase global warming — for instance, Tim Tyler advocates intentionally warming the planet to produce various allegedly beneficial effects. Here the hubris of rejecting the Malcolm Principle is taken to its logical conclusion: Once we start fiddling with the climate intentionally, why not subject it to the whims of whatever we now think might best suit our purposes? Call it transenvironmentalism.
In fact, name any of the most complex systems you can think of that were not created from the start as engineering projects, and there is likely to be a similar transhumanist argument for making it one. For example:
  • The climate, as noted, and thus implicitly also the environment, ecosystem, etc.
  • The animal kingdom, see e.g. our recent lengthy discussion on ending predation.
  • The human nutritional system, see e.g. Kurzweil.
  • The human body, a definitional tenet for transhumanists.
  • The human mind, similarly.
Transhumanist blogger Michael Anissimov (who earlier argued in favor of reengineering the animal kingdom) initially voiced support for intentional global warming, but later deleted the post. He defended his initial support with reference to Singularitarian Eliezer Yudkowsky’s “virtues of rationality,” particularly that of “lightness,” which Yudkowsky defines as: “Let the winds of evidence blow you about as though you are a leaf, with no direction of your own.” Yudkowsky’s list also acknowledges potential limits of rationality implicit in its virtues of “simplicity” and “humility”: “A chain of a thousand links will arrive at a correct conclusion if every step is correct, but if one step is wrong it may carry you anywhere,” and the humble are “Those who most skillfully prepare for the deepest and most catastrophic errors in their own beliefs and plans.” Yet in addition to the “leaf in the wind” virtue, the list also contains “relinquishment”: “Do not flinch from experiences that might destroy your beliefs.”
Putting aside the Gödelian contradiction inherent even in “relinquishment” alone (if one should not hesitate to relinquish one’s beliefs, then one should also not hesitate to relinquish one’s belief in relinquishment), it doesn’t seem that one can coherently exercise all of these virtues at once. We live our lives interacting with systems too complex for us to ever fully comprehend, systems that have come into near-equilibrium as the result of thousands or billions of years of evolution. To take “lightness” and “relinquishment” as guides for action is not simply to be rationally open-minded; rather, it is to choose to reflexively reject the wisdom and stability inherent in that evolution, preferring instead the instability of Yudkowsky’s “leaf in the wind” and the brash belief that what we look at most eagerly now is all there is to see.
Imagine if, in accordance with “lightness” and “relinquishment,” we had undertaken a transhumanist project in the 19th century to reshape human heads based on the fad of phrenology, or a transenvironmentalist project in the 1970s to release massive amounts of carbon dioxide on the hypothesis of global cooling. Such proposals for systemic engineering would have been foolish not merely because of their basis in particular mistaken ideas, but because they would have proceeded on the pretense of comprehensively understanding systems they in fact could barely fathom. The gaps in our understanding mean that mistaken ideas are inevitable. But the inherent opacity of complex systems still eludes those who make similar proposals today: Anissimov, even in acknowledging the global-warming project’s irresponsibility, still cites but a single knowable mechanism of failure (“catastrophic global warming through methane clathrate release”), as if the essential impediment to the plan will be cleared as soon as some antidote to methane clathrate release is devised.
Other transhumanist evaluations of risk similarly focus on what transhumanism is best able to see — namely threats to existence and security, particularly those associated with its own potential creations — which is fine except that this doesn’t make everything else go away. There are numerous “catastrophic errors” wrought already by our failures to act with simplicity and humility — such as our failure to anticipate that technological change might have systemic consequences, as in the climate, environment, and ecosystem; and our tremendous and now clearly exaggerated confidence in rationalist powers exercised directly at the systemic level, as evident in the current financial crisis (see Paul Cella), in food and nutrition (see Michael Pollan and John Schwenkler), and in politics and culture (see Alasdair MacIntyre among many others), just for starters. But among transhumanists there is little serious contemplation of the implications of these errors for their project. (As usual, commenters, please provide me with any counterexamples.)
Perhaps Yudkowsky’s “virtues of rationality” are not themselves to be taken as guides to action. But transhumanism aspires to action — indeed, to revolution. To recognize the consequences of hubris and overreach is not to reject reason in favor of simpleminded tradition or arbitrary givenness, but rather to recognize that there might be purpose and perhaps even unspoken wisdom inherent in existing stable arrangements — and so to acknowledge the danger and instability inherent in the particular hyper-rationalist project to which transhumanists are committed.