Sunday, 16 September 2012

Here is where bioethics has something unique to offer

What other academic field requires you to issue strident moral challenges to the very people who pay your salary and sit on your tenure committee? If you are feeling a little too comfortable with success, it doesn’t usually take much work to dig up some sort of ethical problem to expose. Conflict of interest, research scandals, malpractice lawsuits in waiting -- any of these will do. Go to a dean or a hospital administrator, kick up a fuss with your Institutional Review Board, or if you’re really feeling lucky, go straight to the media. Bang, you’re dead! Professional suicide! This is the beauty part. In bioethics, there is always somebody for you to alienate. Take a step in one direction and you piss off the activists. Take a step back and you anger the doctors. Step to the right and the dean wants your head. Step to the left and the media will crucify you. Pretty soon you’ll find yourself hopping around like a hyperactive five-year-old who has forgotten his Ritalin. One day you will come into work and find the locks changed on your office door. When that happens, sit back, have a cigar, and start looking through the want ads. Congratulate yourself on a job well done.

Thieves of Virtue: When Bioethics Stole Medicine

In a promotional article in the Huffington Post for the publication of Thieves of Virtue: When Bioethics Stole Medicine, Tom Koch, a Canadian gerontologist and bioethicist,  writes:  

"The foundation myth of bioethics, the 'demi-discipline's' self-professed raison d'etre is at best inadequate if not demonstrably false. Its grounding lies not, as bioethicists insist, in a robust ethic of care necessitated by new science and a failed Hippocratic sense of duty and care. Instead its origins and purpose demonstrably rest upon its service to the neoliberal, postmodernist economics that made health a commodity rather than a service."

Tuesday, 4 September 2012

Dark Pools and High-Frequency Drones

It will be very interesting to see if Philip Mirowski, author of Machine Dreams: Economics Becomes a Cyborg Science, decides to update his thesis in light of Scott Patterson's new book, Dark Pools: High-Speed Traders, A.I. Bandits, and the Threat to the Global Financial System. Or perhaps Mirowski might just write a review instead. I haven't read the book yet myself, so I can't comment on whether Patterson's thesis itself presupposes technological determinism, but journalists are certainly quick to resort to it when characterising Patterson's arguments. The Sydney Morning Herald's Paul Sheehan, for example, argues that "regulators are always caught in the wake of technological change. This wake has grown into a froth as the computer age keeps accelerating its own evolution (emphasis mine)".

And there's a viscosity in the imagery quoted from the book, somewhat reminiscent of The Terminator, which speaks in terms of ''a worldwide matrix of dazzlingly complex algorithms, interlinked computer hubs the size of football fields, and high-octane trading robots guided by the latest advances in artificial intelligence''.

For Sheehan, the upshot of all this is clear:

"At the end of World War II, the average holding period for a stock was four years. By 2000, it was eight months. By 2008, it was two months. By last year, it was 22 seconds. By now it will be as long as it takes to read these first two paragraphs...This evolution includes the ''dark pools'' that gave Patterson the title of his book. They are giant pools of liquidity which financial institutions use to trade with each other, outside the sharemarkets, to avoid the preying Bots that seek to exploit any large trade. Dark pools are also an attempt to create stability. As Patterson writes: ''Insiders were slowly realising that the push-button, turbo-trading market in which algos battled algos … at speeds measured in billionths of a second had a fatal flaw … a vicious self-reinforcing feedback loop … Because speed traders had pushed aside more traditional long-term market makers … algos could trigger their own form of self-reinforcing mayhem.''

But if such systems are portrayed as autonomous, then any attempt to regulate them risks appearing a hopelessly dated and defeatist humanist gesture. This is where Patterson's work could reinforce the posthumanist presuppositions of Luhmann's theory and dovetail with Knorr-Cetinna's thesis of the "post-social" environment inhabited by traders. So this book is a reminder of why we have to make sure our social theory does not become too complicit with its object of analysis, without sacrificing any of the complexity needed to adequately address emergent social phenomena. I can't see that this need be too difficult though, especially when Patterson states that his thesis is postmodern:

''With electronic trading, a placeless, faceless, postmodern cyber-market in which computers communicated at warp speed, that physical sense of the market's flow had vanished. The market gained new eyes - electronic eyes …"

Social theory and sociology have been dealing with postmodernists now for more than twenty years, and have proven, contra Baudrillard, that reports of the "death of the social" have been greatly exaggerated. So I feel confident that a new generation will be able to rise to this latest challenge as well.

One final thing, be sure to watch the clip I've posted here till the end, because it concludes with some interesting speculations about the future applications of drone technology. Drones legally become available for commercial use in the United States in 2015.

Sunday, 2 September 2012

My thanks to Steve Fuller...

...for the following kind words:

What is lacking in the first three sites is more than adequately compensated for by yet another Australian website„ named for the planet where most of the Ridley Scott film, ‘Alien’ takes place. This is the only website that I would recommend turning into a book or perhaps even multi-media package. It is an amazing source for commentary and clips on the nexus where critical social theory and trans-/post-humanism meet. The steady stream of current news items, science fiction references and other elements of popular culture – laced together with consistently incisive observations – is a marvel to behold. It is one website that always aims to keep its readers at the edge of their seats. 

Made me feel a bit guilty though for not maintaining a "steady stream of current news items" etc this year because of other commitments. I still greatly appreciate the sentiments, of course. Trying to get something else (a publication) in the works this month, and if it starts to come off,  hope you won't mind Steve if I need to run it by you. Still early days, so not sure yet.

Speaking of dystopias...

 ...having just discussed Peter Thiel, it's disturbing how a feminist science fiction author could advocate something almost as frightening. I've just read an incisive piece that attributes the blindspots in Sheri S Tepper's work to second-wave feminism,  "a movement that was largely defined by and for middle-class white women and notoriously failed to deal with the complex intersections of gender, race, class, and sexuality that women outside that narrow bracket negotiate daily".

In an interview back in  2008, Tepper announced her faith in eugenics as a means of dealing with persons:

"who look human but who are uncontrollable or who habitually hurt other people will no longer be defined as human,” she said in a 2008 interview with Strange Horizons .
Walled cities will be built in the wastelands and all nonhuman persons will be sterilized and sent to live there, together, raising their own food. There will be no traffic in, no traffic out, except for studies that may be done which might lead to a ‘cure.’ There will be no chat about this sequestration being ‘inhumane,’ because the persons so confined are not human by definition.
(Whether she is unaware that forced sterilization has been used routinely against low-income women of color well into the 1970s, or whether she simply doesn’t care, isn’t clear.) Tepper’s ideal society is a terrifying dystopia in and of itself, and once you know that about her, it’s easy to see those politics reflected in everything she writes".

Will Thiel wait for us in the future as Dr Eldon Tyrell?

Dr. Eldon Tyrell: a corporate figure in Blade Runner, presented almost as a a kind of deity who has the power of creating life

I think probably not because Thiel isn't really a visionary. He instead seems to spend most of his time playing in other people's sandboxes. Where there's public debate, he's simply a gadfly. The Tyrrell character at least had bioengineering credentials which gave his company a monopoly in the replicant industry, whereas here's Thiel again merely jumping on the bandwagon, as befitting sui generis futurism, by investing in 3D printed meat; the man who publicly decries democracy for humans apparently wants to be remembered as helping to spare animals from becoming our food. Thiel is notorious for wildly throwing money around at any technology he thinks will stick, which to him means capable of facilitating libertarian autonomy by eluding government regulation (and therefore unsubsidised by governments, so if individual consumers can't afford them, in Thiel's world you won't get to reap any of their benefits). His type is probably a dime a dozen on the futures market; the only difference is Thiel gets brand name recognition and therefore publicly because of his association with PayPal. He's clearly not original enough to patent any ideas worth investing in, and this will mean he will have a hell of a lot of ground to make up before he could seriously compete with established players, not least Monsanto, who already have a huge vested interest in biotech and the meat industry.

I have no doubt though that, in principle, Thiel's mindset would amount to a licence to create a future as dystopian as anything in Blade Runner (click on the link underneath his picture in this post for a further taste of what I mean). This goes all the way to Thiel's narcissistic plan to clone himself: here I am reminded of the scene written for Blade Runner that was never filmed. Batty appears to have killed Tyrell, but it later emerges that another section of the pyramidal (signifying plutocracy) corporate headquarters houses a shark swimming around in an enormous tank. Tyrell's brain, apparently for his personal protection and befitting the lack of sleep required for calibration to the rhythms of the market***, had been transplanted into the shark. Simply an incredible image of the parallels between the savage predators of the ocean and the predators of the corporate world. My speculations in this post (partly with tongue firmly planted in cheek) therefore suggest that although Thiel may be only low-hanging fruit, figuratively speaking, when compared to Tyrell in terms of an overall future social impact, he might at least achieve a comparable level of sentient immortality once he decides to use technologies to blur the species boundaries.

I should also point out that Thiel obviously doesn't appreciate how capitalism is actually incompatible with meritocracy. He blames political correctness (see link under Thiel's pic in this post) for fueling the education bubble, claiming that it prevents the articulation of "certain truths about the inequality of abilities". But consider how the poor would be less likely  to tolerate Thiel's ilk if they had to accept the (fallacious) idea that wealth is commensurate with the amount of effort and ability invested. Zizek offers a pithy assessment of the  proposal that:

a viable and orderly social democracy could be based on a deal whereby we give total power and status to a super rich knowledge elite in exchange for all citizens – regardless of merit or effort – being guaranteed a basic income. He dismissed this, in part because he said it took no account of envy. Zizek quoted Frederich Von Hayek who argued – against advocates of social justice – that the poor find it easier to accept the wealthy if they think their fortune is unmerited. For the masses to accept that those at the top deserve their success means the majority have to accept not only that they are poorer but they are less virtuous.

*** which would make sense (LOL!) as an alternative to cocaine, which has long been the drug of choice on Wall Street

(CREDIT TO my fellow blogger Derridata for first offering a comparison of Tyrell and Thiel, and for discussing meritocracy with me)

A Futuristic Short Film HD: by Sight Systems

A short futuristic film by Eran May-raz and Daniel Lazo.
This is their graduation project from Bezaleal academy of arts.

They have been billed as the future of the way that we will interact with computers.
But a new science fiction film suggests that augmented reality glasses actually have a far darker side - and might allow us to control one another.
‘Sight’ shows how virtual reality can take over from normal life to the extent that we can’t exist without it.

Read more:

Please share if you enjoyed it!
Daniel Lazo:
Eran May-raz:
Hanan Revivo:
Boaz Bachrach:
Ori Golad
Deborah Aroshas

The Superior Human?

"The idea that humans are superior to all other life forms is
not rare. It is one of the most fundamental reasons for
humanity’s careless destruction of our environment, animal
cruelty, war, and other immense problems. The Superior
Human? is the first documentary to systematically
challenge this pompous, self-destructive ideology. The
production team and speakers include world-leading
academics in their respective fields.

They say that necessity sparks invention and that progress
is triggered by need, so why would a species that believes
it is the son of God, the goal of evolution and in domination
of everything on the planet ever need to change? Writer
and director Samuel McAnallen invites viewers to test the
durability of the pillars which hold our status above all
other life forms. Prepare to not only have your ego tested,
but to be shocked by what has passed as science by
governments and leading academic institutions up until
now. For example, did you know that dogs cannot feel

The film starts by cynically poking at a list of 18 commonly
referenced reasons for our supposed superiority. For
those who think our superiority is due to a perfect balance
of many reasons, this view is examined as well. Finally, it
asks if all these reasons are unfairly subjective and shows
viewers just how successful the human species is in terms
of survival. Producer, Dr Jenia Meng, hopes that the film will
stimulate intelligent debate on the topic of human

Written and Directed by: Samuel McAnallen

Produced by: Dr Jenia Meng

Research Advisor: Dr Jenia Meng

Dr Bernard Rollin
Gary Yourofsky
Dr Richard Ryder
Dr Steven Best
Narrated by Dr Nick Gylaw

Country: Australia, USA

Studio: Ultraventus

Distributed by: Ultraventus

Running time: 73 minutes

Release date: March 30, 2012 (perimiere online)

    The Superior Human? is dedicated to 2012 Earth April (EA) which includes Earth Day and World Lab Animal Day.