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Deflating the narrative of progress July 2, 2010

Posted by Summerspeaker in The Singularity, Transhumanism.
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Thanks to a recent article on the uploading controversy, I came across Philippe Verdoux’s unique transhumanist position. Verdoux effectively undermines the technological triumphalism so prevalent in the movement, both conceptually and through anthropological evidence that suggests basic measures of human well-being only surpassed the hunter-gather standard a century or two ago. Resolutely pessimistic, ey dismisses the idea of progress entirely and expresses sympathy for my green anarchist comrades who pine for the days before agriculture.

Verdoux takes Kurzweil to task for claiming people romanticize life a few or many centuries ago, asserting no one actually does this. In fact, all sorts of folks do. The influential Luddite tradition, which includes authors such as E. M. Forster and J.R.R. Tolkien,  looks back wistfully to the Iron Age. Considering the vast number of modern fantasy fans who embrace this vision, I am a little surprised by Verdoux’s ignorance of it. Perhaps he is not as much of a geek as the rest of us. Regardless, it could reasonably be stated that the most serious critics of technology look to prehistory and thus the overall argument loses little from this inaccuracy.

Eir main complaint against smashing civilization is the unfortunate reality of the present arrangement every primitivist must eventually come to terms with. Without mass agriculture, billions die. Given equally serious problems with other options, Verdoux concludes transhumanism to be the best of bad bunch and recommends it as the path forward. In move sure to draw supporters to the barricades, ey christens the position “rational capitulationism.”

The piece stands as a value contribution to the movement. Transhumanist need to recognize the legitimacy of opposition to modern technology; its harms are manifold and manifest. However, I think Verdoux overstates eir case with regard to historical record on material progress. The ascendancy of science and invention occurred about the same time as measures such as life expectancy unambiguously started exceeding the prehistoric era. Something new, exciting, and perhaps worthy of celebration has happened in the last century or two. I wouldn’t know myself, but evidence suggests smart rich white dudes have never had it so good. The optimism commonly professed by transhumanists has a reasonable basis. The question of whether its better to be here hanging out in 2010 or chilling as a hunter-gather back in the day comes down to speculation and personal preference.

My hope for the future is only matched by my disgust at existing conditions. I would desire to live in freedom and equality at any tech level, but scientific understanding at least gives us the possibility of overcoming problems that would otherwise forever plague the species. We need not be bound by the established record of employing knowledge to benefit the few over the many.

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