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If Only Glenn Beck Were a Cyborg: Inside the Singularity Movement

If Only Glenn Beck Were a Cyborg: Inside the Singularity Movement
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  11/25/13 10:02 PMCounterPunch: Tells the Facts, Names the Names » If Only Glenn Beck Were a Cyborg » PrintPage 1 of 7 This copy is for your personal, non-commercial use only. SEPTEMBER 15, 2010 The Singularity Movement  If Only Glenn Beck Were a Cyborg by DAVID CORREIA  While the media and blogosphere spent their August obsessively reporting and debatingGlenn Beck’s “Restoring Honor” rally in Washington, D.C., a more important gathering with far greater political implications took place two weeks earlier yet went totally ignored by the media. The fifth-annual Singularity Summit was held in San Francisco thispast August 14-15. The conference featured a roster of entrepreneurs and futurists and who led the conference goers in a celebration of the transformative power of technoscience and the coming technorapture of what they call The Singularity. The term,Singularity, coined by Vernor Vinge in 1993 and popularized by Ray Kurzweil, an author,entrepreneur and more recently the high priest of futurism, refers to the comingtranscendence of science and technology in society.The singularity movement, made up of university scientists, technocapitalists andmilitary funders, organizes itself around a unbounded faith in exponential advancementsin computing technology, nanotechnology and bioengineering that will, they claim,inexorably lead to The Singularity: the moment when technoscientific progress will send both technology and humanity past a profound threshold where life as we know it willtake on a new form. This technogenesis, as many call it, will usher in a world where, in itsmost fantastic elaborations, we can create clones of ourselves and upload ourconsciousness as a way to achieve immortality; a world where we can genetically engineerourselves around the biological constraints that currently make use human; where we can become not only cybernetic organisms but an entirely different species.The millenarian, tent-revival fervor of many of the devotees is a product of the constantpreaching coming from a growing priesthood of futurists and technologists whoanticipate a world of rapid but controlled techno-human coevolution. The annualsummit, a strange ceremony of the coming Singularity, is one of many outlets thatexpress this enthusiasm. The journal, H+ (Humanity Plus), along with a host of   11/25/13 10:02 PMCounterPunch: Tells the Facts, Names the Names » If Only Glenn Beck Were a Cyborg » PrintPage 2 of 7 institutions, centers and even universities advance a research agenda many refer to as“transhumanism” in which the problems of human intelligence and immortality areprimary subjects.Despite the social and scientific significance of such research, popular coverage of theevent and the movement has been either nonexistent or has adopted the techno-claims of transhumanists with an uncritical zeal that matches the enthusiasm of the participants.But that makes sense, doesn’t it? After all, aren’t the benefits of science and technology obvious and self-evident? The signs of material progress are everywhere. Technologicaladvances, particularly medical technologies, have delivered important improvements tolife expectancy, child mortality and disease eradication to name just a few. And isn’tcriticism of technology always a form of backward looking, fear-based nostalgia? Well, not entirely. The long held progressive view of technology took hit after hit in thetwentieth century. Barbaric world wars, the possibility of nuclear apocalypse, and thefailure of either industrial capitalism or state communism to resolve social problems suchas poverty and inequality combined to throw the progressive view of technology intodoubt. But instead of a new skepticism of technology and science taking root, areenergized theology of technology emerged instead. The singularity movement reflectsthe peak of this shift. Its claims of human perfectibility resonate with a new view of socialprogress rooted not in social institutions but rather in the individual. In a post-communist, post 9/11 world, social progress, it seems, has become a function of cumulative acts of self-improvement. Progress, disconnected from collective socialprojects, has been reorganized and harmonized with the new faith in the individual. Inthis new world-view, the individual is the agent of social change and H+ serves as theOprah Magazine of this new faith. The erosion of faith in social institutions as a path toprogressive change has left the individual, in Ayn Rand-like glory, at the center of progressive politics.First, some history. In 1998, the World Transhumanist Association (WTA) was founded,according to one member, "to defend the right of individuals in free and democraticsocieties to use new technologies that overcome the limitations of the human body…” So WTA works to guarantee “safe, universal and voluntary access to [transhumanisttechnologies]. Because ultimately, it’s all about the little guy finally having a chance to notonly overcome the biological limitations we all have as human beings but also the sociallimitations imposed on him."  11/25/13 10:02 PMCounterPunch: Tells the Facts, Names the Names » If Only Glenn Beck Were a Cyborg » PrintPage 3 of 7 Despite the democratic rhetoric, the interest in the singularity by corporate and military interests provides a clue as to the direction and social implication of transhumanisttechnology. In 2006, Stanford University hosted the first Singularity Summit and broughtscience fiction authors, start-up CEOs, scientists and speakers, like Bill McKibben andothers, to examine the social implications of Ray Kurzweil’s prediction of a “comingmerger of human and machine intelligence [that] will mark the next stage in theevolution of life.” Google, along with a host of other corporate sponsors, createdSingularity University, where students can pay tuition of more than $25,000 for a 10- week program where they can get “really excited about the idea of biology as the new itindustry.” Transhumanism, it seems, is really more about corporatism.Indeed as Katherine Hayles has pointed out, “transhumanist rhetoric concentrates onindividual transcendence; at transhumanist websites, articles, and books, there is aconspicuous absence of considering socioeconomic dynamics beyond the individual.” Andplatitudes about inclusiveness aside, the Transhumanist road is not one traveled by “thelittle guy.” And corporations aren’t the only institutions driving the transhumanist agenda. Futuristslike Kurzweil admit that the breakthroughs of the kind they anticipate require hugecommitments of money and resources. And so alliances are hatched among scientists andcorporate and military funders in pursuit of technological advances that they claim areundertaken for the sole benefit of individual self-improvement. Kurzweil for exampleenvisions the Singularity as a techno-advance that will serve the general social good of society, and toward this end he pursues an enthusiastic research collaboration with theU.S. Army. And while the progressive media refused to buy Beck’s self-serving religious piety in his“Restoring Honor” rally, they have bought the singularity silliness without questions.Instead of wondering how military-funded technologies will somehow becomeegalitarian, the Huffington Post is charmed by the “unbounded optimism and realism” of the movement. Instead of noting that the Defense Advanced Research Products Agency (DARPA), the venture capitalists of military violence, funds dozens of the techno-dreamsdrawn from the movement, The Daily Kos is instead “stunned at the reactionary attitudes” of the skeptics.The truth is not the techno-utopia described at the conference or in the pages of H+. Thesingularity movement is encouraged and sponsored by a malevolent coterie of military   11/25/13 10:02 PMCounterPunch: Tells the Facts, Names the Names » If Only Glenn Beck Were a Cyborg » PrintPage 4 of 7 and corporate interests in search of a technotranscendence that serves to reinforceinequality rather than the dream of human transcendence. Those who should be offeringskepticism are blinded, it seems, by the truth claims and seemingly self-evident goodnessof technoscience. But the singularity movement is far from progressive and the appealingpossibility of technosolutions to our most intractable social and environmental issuesmasks frightening social and ecological implications.The “wildly improbable dreams of the ‘perfectibility of Man’” as Leo Marx put it has along and disturbing history. The scientists behind the Human Genome Project and thecorporations profiting from genetic engineering, and the militaries interested in bioengineering are not the first to express techno-enthusiasm for the possibilities of technology and science to transform what it means to be human. Throughout the 1920sand 30s, eugenicist scientists celebrated the power of science and technology to cleansethe human genome and produce a new pure human race.Eugenicist “scientists” convinced state and local authorities throughout the U.S. tosterilize tens of thousands of Americans. Thousands more were institutionalized and the“science” of eugenics came to serve as the central scientific principle in Nazi Germany.The coordinated campaign of “scientific” eugenics in the pursuit of human perfectibility produced tens of thousands of victims in the U.S. and millions worldwide who were guilty only of being poor, rural, uneducated or “unfit” according the “scientific” criteria.The dark side of eugenics hid behind the edifice of science and the scientists whoadvanced the goals of eugenics policed the building. They painted their critics asuniformed technophobes who lacked the necessary scientific background to comment orcriticize. Arrogant claims of technotranscendence are being elaborated once again, thistime by singularity movement scientists who ignore the social costs and inequalities of anemerging military-led technocapitalist version of progress. And more troubling still is that, despite the disturbing and violent history of science andtechnology applied to the question of human perfectibility through racial and classsuperiority, the singularity movement enjoys nearly universal praise from bothconservative and progressive media outlets. Their futurist claims charm bloggers andreporters from across the political spectrum, from Forbes to the Daily Kos, from WiredMagazine to the Huffington Post.There are those, however, for whom the claims of human perfectibility give pause. But to  11/25/13 10:02 PMCounterPunch: Tells the Facts, Names the Names » If Only Glenn Beck Were a Cyborg » PrintPage 5 of 7 the singularity crowd critics who question the wisdom of, say, human genetic engineeringare uninformed “neo-Luddites and technophobes.” And to those concerned that thetechnology could serve to reinforce existing social inequalities by, for example, increasingthe power of the corporations and militaries that control the technologies, they declare,“transhumanists… all share the value of rational thinking, freedom, tolerance, democracy and concern for our fellow human beings.” We believe them at our own risk. The inventors and popularizers of any technology arerarely the best judges of the social implications and future applications of technologies. As the cultural critic Lewis Mumford warned, technological progress is not a function of any essential quality and inherent driver within technology, but rather reflects adeliberate effort by individuals and institutions to drive technology as a means to achievecertain economic and political ends. As “the hand-mill gives you society with the feudallord” wrote Karl Marx in the Poverty of Philosophy, “the steam-mill, society with theindustrial capitalist.” What kind of society does science and technology directed andcontrolled by military and corporate interests give us?Mumford concluded that when technology was developed, controlled and rationalized by capitalists, it served class interests and capitalist accumulation. Despite the optimism of scientists, he came to realize that faith in the “serviceability of the machine” was really about service to capitalist enterprise. Progress in technology was not an inexorable force,and certainly not an egalitarian force of social change, but rather progress in technology,he concluded, could be charted in the United States for its ability to serve the needs of capital over the needs of society.The most important scientific institutions, the largest U.S. corporations, and the mostprominent academics gave legitimacy and momentum to the long eugenic nightmare inthe U.S. In 1902 Stanford President David Starr Jordan elaborated a eugenics visions in which human perfectibility through science offered the only path to human liberation.Today, Stanford University once again celebrates human perfectibility through theSingularity Institute. Once again prominent academic scientists contribute to the fictionthat technology is somehow always autonomous, benevolent, and to the benefits of everyone.Eugenics was, among other things, a profitable industry for IBM. And once again thedream of human perfectibility is proving to be the new “it” industry. It is bankrolled by  venture capitalists and military interests who anticipate super profits. The Singularity 
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