Sunday, 18 September 2011

Is Ethical Human Genetic Enhancement Possible?

"Slate is running running an interesting conversationabout transhumanism, and the ethics of the same, between Kyle Munkittrick, Nicholas Agar, and Brad Allenby. I urge you to read the entries so far – it’s a fascinating read. But one thing that I find interesting about the discussion is this kind of baseline assumption that humans will be capable of genetic engineering that makes people smarter, stronger, faster, healthier, longer-lived, etc.

From my perspective though, there’s a lot of logistics being handwaved away in this discussion. How, exactly, do we expect human genetic enhancement tohappen? Obviously, some types of human genetic engineering are possible. Gene therapy, for example, is promising for some genetic conditions, but it typically involves adding new cells to the body (in particular, the bone marrow). It doesn’t rewriting someone’s DNA wholesale. And frankly, rewriting an adult’s DNA from the ground up presents so many technical difficulties that I think it’s safe to say that it’s probably impossible.

...Let me steal a few points from my earlier essay about the ethics of animal enhancement, because those issues are even more prevalent here. Let’s start with the most common dream of transhumanism – making people significantly more intelligent. Here’s the thing about human intelligence – it’s incredibly complex. The brain is an amazingly complicated organ that we’re only just now starting to understand. But there are a few things that we do know, and one of those things is that intelligence is almost certainly polygenic – meaning that there are many, many genes that underly human intelligence. So making babies smarter isn’t as simple as just expressing one or two genes. It means changing an entire system. So it’s a daunting task to achieve Kyle Munkittrick’s stated assumption of transhumans with “genetic profiles allowing IQs above 200.” read on here

Friday, 16 September 2011

South Korean Landscapes of Capital

I've never forgotten that essay published in Logics of Television (edited by Patricia Mellencamp) all those years ago about how electronic freeway billboards offer a glimpse of what it might be like for all of us to live inside "one gigantic machine". This analogy points to how cityscapes can evoke circuitboards of desire, with the mobile privatization of the car, which is used to navigate public space, in effect reducing this space to a means to an end: individual consumption. One could refer to the Situationists in this context (we are becoming more beholden to "the spectacle" etc) as well. But rather than link to Ken Wark's animated history of the Situationists, which has gone viral,  I thought I'd draw attention to another piece that impresses in terms of its ambitious scale and accompanying bibliography: please check out Landscapes of Capital to help contextualize this South Korean example; it has relevance, of course, to other "global" cities as well. The critical point then is that the construction of these "dreamworlds" is dependent on a process of abstraction:

Abstracted, aestheticized, and decontextualized, the signifiers of landscape in corporate advertising have been cleansed of the ravages of Capital -- the shantytowns and barrios, unemployment lines, soup kitchens, polluted air and water, or IMF austerity measures and ensuing riots. What remains is less a contested terrain than a reflection of the wonderment brought on by Capital.

Another central element of this process must be referred to here: the elimination of any reference to the workers who ensure these products are manufactured, stocked, and then delivered to meet customers' expectations of "convenience". As an antidote I recommend the excellent documentary called Manufactured Landscapes, which shows the changes to landscapes due to industrial work and manufacturing. Such manufactured landscapes can be contrasted with the "second-order" landscapes removed from materiality (by the process of representation) utilized by the advertising industry, that we find in this South Korean example.

Tuesday, 13 September 2011

The Anthropocene: "Nature is now something that we create"

Isn't it frustrating when scientists confidently announce a new paradigm, when all they are really (unknowingly) doing is drawing attention to something sociologists had already described under a different label? A case in point: British sociologist Anthony Giddens introduced the concept of "reflexive modernization" to denote how everything has become subject to human decision-making, including nature itself. According to him, this means it is now impossible to speak of nature in pristine terms that imply its separateness from "society". This is exactly the kind of precursor that is not acknowledged by middlebrow publications such as The Economist, which blandly informs (ahem) us that it was in the year 2000 (i.e. some years after Giddens's pronouncements) that:

"Paul Crutzen, an eminent atmospheric chemist, realised he no longer believed he was living in the Holocene. He was living in some other age, one shaped primarily by people. From their trawlers scraping the floors of the seas to their dams impounding sediment by the gigatonne, from their stripping of forests to their irrigation of farms, from their mile-deep mines to their melting of glaciers, humans were bringing about an age of planetary change. With a colleague, Eugene Stoermer, Dr Crutzen suggested this age be called the Anthropocene—“the recent age of man”.

Before continuing on its merry way:

"The advent of the Anthropocene promises more, though, than a scientific nicety or a new way of grabbing the eco-jaded public’s attention. The term “paradigm shift” is bandied around with promiscuous ease. But for the natural sciences to make human activity central to its conception of the world, rather than a distraction, would mark such a shift for real. For centuries, science has progressed by making people peripheral. In the 16th century Nicolaus Copernicus moved the Earth from its privileged position at the centre of the universe. In the 18th James Hutton opened up depths of geological time that dwarf the narrow now. In the 19th Charles Darwin fitted humans onto a single twig of the evolving tree of life. As Simon Lewis, an ecologist at the University of Leeds, points out, embracing the Anthropocene as an idea means reversing this trend. It means treating humans not as insignificant observers of the natural world but as central to its workings, elemental in their force."

Try telling me then that there is no disciplinary division of labor, and then ask yourself why it is so easy for natural scientists to get traction in the media, while social scientists struggle to make any impression at all? Such is the hegemonic effect of the "expertise" associated with scientists. It doesn't hurt either of course when initiatives such as Public Understandings of Science forums can help out the cause by handling the PR side of things. Ditto for a sponsor's generous funding. Personal experience has taught me as much: I can still vividly remember attending a meeting chaired by a chemistry professor who dropped an anecdote about the time he had to sit on a panel with a feminist philosopher of science. Rather than acknowledge the potentially critical ramifications of her work for his own practices though, he chose instead to make a dismissive comment about the (comparatively) small size of the grants she had previously won to support her research (usually around $2, 000 each time): "I don't get out of bed for anything less than $15, 000."

Or try following the money trail that has helped prop up one particularly prominent science popularizer: Richard Dawkins. Two former Microsoft executives have linkages to Dawkins and the concept of memes. Former Microsoft executive Charles Simonyi has funded the endowed chair at England’s Oxford University first occupied by Dawkins, the originator of the concept of memes. Another interesting Microsoft connection is Richard Brodie, a formerMicrosoft executive who wrote the first version of Microsoft Word, and who was Bill Gates’s personal technical assistant. After retiring from Microsoft, Brodie wrote Virus of the Mind:The New Science of the Meme.

 I can't see that my argument is necessarily invalidated by pointing out how Giddens offered policy advice to Blair and Clinton. That kind of access to the halls of power is hardly representative of the public profile of the majority  of social scientists. I know that in Australia for example, the government appoints a "Chief Scientist", while the best a sociologist can hope for is to be voted president of their members' association (i.e. the Australian Sociological Association). Besides, what does it say about the long-term nature of the "influence" of a sociologist like Giddens, when the meaning of his central concept is already seemingly forgotten--or rather, remains unknown--even in the Anglosphere? Indeed, how is it possible already for historical amnesia to have set in, ironically, when Giddens sits in the House of Lords for Labour? Debate the relative merits of his "third way" policy proposals all you like; it still doesn't change the fact that reflexive modernization is not destined to attain the status of a "meme" to the same extent as the anthropocene no doubt eventually will-- notwithstanding the crossovers between their respective scientific implications.

 And by the way, Brian Eno, you failed to challenge this sad state of affairs by namedropping "anthropocene" on your Small Craft on a Milk Sea fact, you merely kowtowed to the powers-that-be...

Monday, 12 September 2011

The Commercial Campus

Corporations are hiring popular students to promote their brand on campus. At the University of North Carolina, American Eagle helps first-year students move-in, while Target hosts the inaugural party

Wednesday, 7 September 2011

The Human Project

Just a quick shout out to Steve Fuller and anyone else who may be interested-- Steve, not sure if you've already seen this, but there might be scope for you to contact them about your new book...could at least be worth tweeting them...? Failing that, given the scale of involvement the creators of the project are calling for, I suppose there is some potential to offer a snapshot of where the collective conversations about humanity are going with respect to a range of important issues. Its availability as an app hints at possible uses as a pedagogical tool, provided it doesn't become too panglossian....(?)

Human Manifesto 2.0 - We do it together

(All of the above, plus) The Human Manifesto makes the case for a bigger, bolder, 21st century human identity. Two billion of us can now access the entire evolving body of human knowledge through the internet. You don't have to be an anthropologist to glimpse the richness of human experience, a cosmologist to grasp the 13.7 billion year story of our Universe, or a close friend to see what millions of us are thinking at this very moment. All you need is an internet connection, an explorer's mind, and time to piece it all together.

The Human Manifesto 1.0 just talks about it. In The Human Manifesto 2.0, we can all show how it's done. You participate. You would be able to upload your videos and images in response to the question, "What does it mean to be Human in the 21st century?" to YouTube and Flickr (and tag them with #IamHuman), and we'll create a curated content platform, letting you vote and share the content you like most. The Human Manifesto 2.0 can become an evolving declaration of who we are as a species and who we could become.

Sunday, 4 September 2011

RSA: Humanity 2.0

Well, how will I be able to resist a debate featuring two people I've been reading now for a number of years? i.e. Steve Fuller and China Mieville. A meeting, and perhaps even a rapprochement, between sociology and science fiction (the longed-for possibility of which originally inspired me to create this blog). In strictest confidence, you can be sure I will be asking Steve for his impressions of China (sadly I guess I won't ever find out what China makes of Steve, beyond what he has to say in his talk).

Be sure to pencil October 6 into your diary, as you can listen to the event live.

6th Oct 2011; 19:00
This event is now fully booked but you can join the waiting list for any returns.

RSA Debate

How will we ascribe status to human life in a ‘post-human’ world? Should we take post-humanism seriously? If so, how do we define and value our humanity in the face of a future that will only otherwise confer advantage on the few? As we re-engineer the human body, and even human genome, are we attempting to realize dreams that hitherto have been largely pursued as social-engineering projects or are we doing something new?

From traders and dreamers to technogeeks and philosophers, whose ideologies run the gamut from collectivism to libertarianism, a large constituency is already engaged with our enhanced future. This constituency may radically reconfigure the global political space.

The RSA gathers a high-profile panel of speakers to explore the hidden agendas behind our values and attitudes toward the place of ‘the human’ in today’s societies, and debate what must now be a key issue for the 21st century.

Speakers: Professor Steve Fuller, Auguste Comte Chair in Social Epistemology, the Department of Sociology, the University of Warwick and author of 'Humanity 2:0'; Dr Rachel Armstrong, Senior TED Fellow and co-director, AVATAR (Advanced Virtual and Technological Architectural Research) in Architecture & Synthetic Biology, The School of Architecture & Construction, University of Greenwich; and China Miéville, author of several works of fiction and non-fiction.

Chair: Dr Andy Miah, chair, Ethics and Emerging Technologies in the Faculty of Business & Creative Industries, the University of the West of Scotland.

Twitter logoSuggested hashtag for Twitter users: #RSAhumanity

Friday, 2 September 2011

In Time

When Will Salas is falsely accused of murder, he must figure out a way, with the help of a beautiful hostage, to bring down a system where time is money -- literally -- enabling the wealthy to live forever while the poor, like Will, have to beg, borrow, and steal enough minutes to make it through another day.

The premise of this film is certainly intriguing. I'll have to reserve judgement though until I've had a chance to see it. I already know that all filmmakers, especially those working in Hollywood, face the problem of how to develop sympathetic characters that the audience can identify with, without sacrificing the larger chain of historical actors, structures, and events, to the point where they become mere window-dressing. It is clearly difficult then to make a radical, as opposed to a merely liberal, or conservative, film.

Having said that, the trailer has got me thinking. I like how it appears to at least gesture at Marx's critical insight that work is dead time for most people: it's death on the installment plan because we trade our time away for the possibility of a real life later. Now, if life enhancement technologies were ever made widely accessible, it'd be nice to think that they might allow the precariat, who are at present forced to do piecemeal work with no benefits, to retrain and work a bit longer, as compensation for not having a pension fund up until that point. For such social democratic measures to be viable though, the Consumer Price Index would have to remain steady, and this is, sadly, unlikely to be the case because of the dynamic and exploitative nature of capitalism: the disparity between the CPI and wages, compounded by the extraction of surplus value from workers, would mean that the cost of living would not be ameliorated for those least able to afford any real improvement to their quality of life. Access to such technologies would then in all likelihood simply mean you would be forced to work longer without accumulating any additional benefits. Conservatives would be happy about this as they would not have to worry about the lack of available tax dollars (especially when they also typically advocate tax breaks for the wealthy) to fund the retirements of an ageing population.

 Policy-makers in developed countries at present see an ageing population as a looming problem because of the so-called "fertility crisis": not enough children are being born to replace the retiring generations of workers, so the tax base shrinks accordingly. This makes me think the scenario in the film is probably the more realistic option as far as capitalists are concerned i.e.there would be no real incentive to make these technologies available to those who couldn't afford them--unless offered as a carrot on a stick to discipline the workforce--so they would, for the most part, remain a luxury commodity for the very rich to enjoy. Consistent with this dystopian logic, in my view, this would mean it's more likely that greedy capitalists would resort to the "blackbirding" of cheaper (non-unionised) labourers from the Third World, who would be worked till they dropped, and then simply replaced, rather than "enhanced..."

Believe me, I desperately want to be wrong about this. I hope instead for a resurgence of progressive, collective action, worker's owning the means of production; something like the technological utopia envisaged by Marcuse to make good on Marx's ideal of communism as "From each according to his ability, to each according to his need (or needs)"-- albeit without the androcentric bias, of course. Using everyday technologies such as mobile phones as examples, Ray Kurzweil would have us believe that all technologies become affordable as they grow more powerful, so everyone can eventually become posthuman: meaning that all of these problems will somehow just go away, with the flick of a wrist, or rather, the press of a button. Contra this thesis of the Singularity, it looks like In Time will be reminding us that capitalism's relentless theft of time from workers is responsible for their alienation, rather than any sense of failure at not having realised their posthuman potential.....