Stoll Revisited, Why Transhumanism Is Still Utopian

And why technological progress alone does not lead to a better life

by Diego Ramiro Lattes

Technological reactionaries and progressives

Some people have always had a hatred of all things new, romanticizing a “glorious past” and often ignoring that the changes since those times have not been entirely for the worst. We can argue from dawn to dusk then back to dawn all about how there is still inequality and economic injustice in the technological world – but just as much could be said about the pre-technological era of kings and emperors. Yet these people blame progress for social decay, how technology has disconnected people from “the land” and its supposed virtues – that urban society is worse than the glorified agricultural realms of old.

Every coin has two faces, though, and just as there are people who yearn for a supposedly “lost golden age,” there are those who look not to the past but to the future for its coming. The utopian futurists insist technology on its own will usher in a new golden age, and poverty, economic and social inequality, traditional society, and even perhaps the human being will be things of the past. To the these people the problem is not technology per se, but that technology is not receiving the support it should have, and we should make every effort to reverse that trend. It is towards this group of people that I am going to levy the bulk of criticism in this article.

From the 90s to our days

The idea of a brighter future is nothing new, and sadly due to a mixture of hype and enthusiasm people who warn that new technologies will not necessarily lead to better living standards are ignored or, even worse, derided. One such man is Clifford Stoll. Stoll published in 1995 an article called “Why The Web Won’t Be Nirvana,” which critiqued the overly enthusiastic approach most people had back then – and the odd thing is that many of such criticisms can still be echoed to this very day, even if the Internet itself changed.

“Your word gets out, leapfrogging editors and publishers. Every voice can be heard cheaply and instantly. The result? Every voice is heard. The cacophony more closely resembles citizens band radio, complete with handles, harassment, and anonymous threats. When most everyone shouts, few listen.”

Stoll says about the largely forgotten Usenet. Yet today I know places that are just like that but with far bigger audiences: Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, to name a few. The criticism is exactly the same: I hear a lot of screams and shouts, but few people willing to actually have a reasonable discussion. Most just want to practice soccer politics, “my –ism is better than yours.” Why? Because society has not really changed, and the Internet did not really change it. We hear talks about how great it is to be able to speak to someone on a different continent, but what good is that when the person is arguing the same tired points as their ruling -ism?

“These expensive toys are difficult to use in classrooms and require extensive teacher training. Sure, kids love videogames – but think of your own experience: can you recall even one educational filmstrip of decades past? I’ll bet you remember the two or three great teachers who made a difference in your life.”

Stoll comments the above in regards to computer-assisted education, and I am in complete agreement. Not only has technology made its way into the classroom gradually and slowly, but its effect has not been at all different from traditional schooling. Without proper teachers and classrooms, these new flashy screens do little to aid in the development of future citizens.

But there is a last excerpt I would like to take from his warnings, one which is perhaps the most important of all:

“They speak of electronic town meetings and virtual communities. Commerce and business will shift from offices and malls to networks and modems. And the freedom of digital networks will make government more democratic. Baloney. Do our computer pundits lack all common sense? The truth in no online database will replace your daily newspaper, no CD-ROM can take the place of a competent teacher and no computer network will change the way government works.”

I think this is the crux of the problem with today’s world. While e-commerce is an everyday occurrence and newspapers are on the verge of becoming entirely digitized, government and media as a whole operate as they always did – pushing narratives, fighting change from within, and worst of all, now having better and newer tools to do it.

In fact, so-called “electronic voting” has been recalled in many countries over allegations of vote manipulation and corruption, a manipulation of elections which would have been far harder to achieve in the hand-counted paper ballots of old. One need not look further than Trump’s election, where allegations of foreign intervention might be a tad too real – even if in practice not enough to overturn the result of the actual electoral process, they still manage to show that the system has vulnerabilities traditional voting does not have.

As for making government more democratic? I recall a joke about Facebook I once saw on a “demotivational poster” that referenced Orwell’s 1984 and seems tragicomically true these days: “The Party Doesn’t Need the Telescreen to Spy on the Proles. The Proles Freely Give up Their Privacy All by Themselves.”

The wave of “revolutionary technologies,” fundraisers, and technophiles

Today we have a new wave of techno-dreamers, of people who say we are on the verge of change so great that human beings will soon be obsolete. From the “2045 Initiative” created and promoted by Dmitry Itskov, to Ray Kurzweil’s “Singularitarians,” even down to so-called “Biohackers” and “Grinders,” and including people like Aubrey De Grey whose only wish is to “cure aging,” the techno-dreamers are everywhere.

The Internet was merely a stepping stone for these people, who continually repeat the tired mantra of “the coming technological revolution.” CRISPR is giving back the sight to the blind, robots will soon replace human programmers, and Deus Ex-styled “augmentations” (mechanical arms, legs, etc) are becoming commonplace.

Yet I see a different picture. When one looks up the aforementioned gentlemen, it is easy to see that they are salesmen first and scientists second. De Grey tours the world asking for financial support for SENS – his personal project which, he hopes, will be able to stop biological aging before his death. Itskov is a Russian millionaire, a rich man who no doubt has direct or indirect ties to the Russian oligarchs, and Ray Kurzweil himself has made a fortune in books predicting the Singularity – a supposed point in time when AI overtakes human development. None of these men have to struggle with the problems of today’s world; they live their lives concerned about avoiding death, not trying to directly solve poverty, corruption, or anything of the sort because they believe technology will do it for themselves.

A tad more connected to reality are the Biohackers, Grinders, and self-made cyborgs of our modern era. These are people who regularly experiment with their bodies, happily shoving microchips and devices under their own skin. While their ideals are lofty – presumably to keep emerging technologies within the reach of the common man – in practice these communities are no different from any current or old subculture. A one-trick group that bases their entire identity on a single interest, which condemns them to remain a rather obscure minority.

Worse, the enthusiastic people who have some notoriety among the mainstream (cyborg Neil Harbisson being the most famous), their only aspect of note is that they have an implant on their person. That is it. If you look up Harbisson’s “Colour Concert,” you will see that he spends half of it preparing for the other half which, while listenable, is a far cry from the transhumanists’ vaunted “creation of new senses” sales talk. I should note that Harbisson too has jumped on the “future now” train. He himself co-founded a civil rights group in Britain for fellow cyborgs, eager to get the ball rolling.

In stark contrast with reality

Yet all these futurists forget one key point. Most people do not live in the future. In fact, I would argue that most do not live in the present, but the past. For all their supposed progress, the Euro Zone is still championing economic austerity and Neoliberalism, the same policies which led to a stagnation of real wages since the 1980s.

Internet has done next to nothing to solve the developing world’s problems. Africa as a whole is still a battleground for insurgents, and actual slavery remains a problem in Mauritania and, thanks to NATO, now in Libya as well. Bureaucracy has shifted from papers to online questionnaires, but finding employment for the downtrodden is just as difficult as ever (if not more so given that Internet questionnaires require, well, a computer and electricity).

In a world that still has not decided whether the poorest members of society deserve to live, we have people arguing about robot rights. We have people being killed by drones, with no end in sight for the present major military conflicts. Worse, there is regular talk about the USA and Russia “resuming” the Cold War, with troops from both sides dying as a result of direct intervention in Syria, and we already had a debacle involving spies. I hear talk of “robots taking our jobs” daily, but little to actual jobs being taken.

Perhaps the most glaring detachment comes in the form of the “death abolitionists” who champion research to end aging. We still have not solved most diseases gripping humanity, nor have we eradicated poverty, and these people want to live forever. What could be more in contrast with plain reality than that?

Reconsidering the future

I think the biggest obstacles to progress are not lack of support for technology, but that humanity as a whole has not learned from its past. In light of this, what good would something like immortality achieve? As a matter of fact most people favor social stability, which is why conservative and moderate regimes are the norm in today’s world. They represent the thing the average person cares about the most. What do these people think is going to happen if they get to live forever? New and brilliant ideas gaining leeway, or the same old chants about “living within our means” being endlessly repeated?

Personally, I would much rather prefer a world where science is applied in economics and where poverty has been ended by permanently lifting its sufferers out of it. This is not to say I am anti-progress, as anyone who knows me even in passing has probably seen how highly I speak of the technological world (Why else would I support a project such as OGAS?). But I think this enthusiasm is wrongly directed towards futurism when we could very well be solving present-day issues. Resources are not unlimited, we do not have an unlimited amount of labs, factories, and personnel. Instead of aiming so high we forget we are still on the ground, we should work on lifting ourselves up. We should work towards actually building a brighter future, instead of expecting it to be handed to us via shiny VR helmets.

A final word to coming days

Stoll was heavily criticized in the past for being wrong, and I think the same will happen to me as time goes on and more people find this article. Naturally (assuming the world does not explode in a new World War), technology will keep progressing and some drastic social change could actually occur as a result (Gene clinics or cyborg facilities could become commonplace), but I am willing to bet this will not be the case for a while, possibly until long after I’m dead. Unlike transhumanists, my biggest fear is not death – it is when I have to leave the world, humanity will still fear debt and deficits in Government fiat, and will still think austerity is a good thing.

Diego Ramiro Lattes is from South America, Argentina, and has a low tolerance for nonsense, be it left wing or right wing. He can be reached over Twitter and is open to direct messages.

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