Sunday, November 03, 2013


I’m trying to figure out an article from Aeon, an online mag, by Steve Fuller, “a social epistemologist at the University of Warwick. His book The Proactionary Imperative: A Foundation for Transhumanism, co-authored with Veronika Lipinska, is due out in spring 2014.”  Part of my problem is that I keep confusing it with last night’s movie:  “Angels and Demons,” a continuation of “The Da Vinci Code,” which develops out of the opposition between early science (Galileo and the Illuminati) versus the Catholic church (the Pope and the human given).

The article is itself an attempt to understand “a jet-setting Iranian playboy, transhumanist author and corporate consultant who argued that this divide [left-wing versus right-wing] was due for a 90-degree rotation. F M Esfandiary — or ‘FM-2030’ as he began calling himself in the 1970s — predicted an axial shift to ‘up-wing’ and ‘down-wing’ political priorities.”  “‘up‑wing’ meant looking toward the heavens, and ‘down-wing’ was looking toward the Earth.”  You might as well lie down to think about it. It’s the velvet black of deep space versus green grass.  Space ships versus geodesic domes.

The crux seems to be whether it is better to force the universe to accommodate us through the use of clever technology or whether it is better to adapt and fit into the earth we belong to.  Human beings are the only animals who have this choice beyond, say, building a shelter or encouraging the growth of things we like.  Ants do not build spaceships, though I’m sure they would if they could.  This opinion shows that I’m not at heart a “black.”  Fuller (Steve) claims this fix-it attitude (even tinkering with genomes) is popular on TED as well as among the young.   I do enjoy TED talks but I am not young.  He says “the up-winging Blacks combine the old libertarian Right and the old technocratic Left, while the down-winging Greens bring together elements of the old conservative Right and the old communitarian Left.”

Much of the difference comes in the attempt to understand anew authority, territory, and social justice.  Instead of resisting authoritarian law-making or even compassion through social programming or the military capacity to preserve order, this way of thinking challenges the notions of authority and territory in the first place.  Welfare doesn’t work; revolution doesn’t work; taxation doesn’t work; governmental design doesn’t work, capitalism doesn’t work.

So what works?   And what IS working?  Informing this sensibility is a more general metaphysical belief that there are objectively ‘natural’ and ‘unnatural’ ways of being human.  I would add ways of “being” at all.  Is it natural or unnatural to try to diminish the inadvertent extinguishing of species by putting enormous effort, money and emotion into recovering the condor or the swift fox?   Is it natural or unnatural to recreate a dinosaur by tinkering with the genome of an ostrich egg?

But when we’re playing with the “god particle,” as in the re-weaving of creation according to CERN, aren’t we risking the accidental destruction of the lynch pin that holds it all together?  I was interested that the designers for the explosion that is the capstone of “Angels and Demons” at first drew on images of atomic bomb explosions, but then moved to telescope photos of galaxies exploding which oddly looked more like Renaissance religious paintings.  Darker.

This is the sun -- a contained explosion -- natural.

Part of the argument seems to be whether humans can be trusted to define their own freedoms and pleasures.  Should some philosophical technology establish and justify the basic parameters of human happiness?   (I suspect we prefer the self-determination for ourselves and the prescriptions for others.)  Should infants be “adjusted” to meet our standards of bimorphic sex when they “naturally” might have mixed attributes, neither male nor female or maybe both?  Should we save premies, knowing they are likely to have damage?  Or does love sweep all that aside?  

Two friends have had idealized dental work.  I don’t like it.  They’re not “them” now.  But bad teeth are a marker of poverty, a loser clue.  If all the poor people had excellent Hollywood-standard smiles, would they become successful?  But is it really different to supply Headstart for all youngsters, knowing that success then is a marker for achievement throughout life?  (Well, assuming that the society stays enough the same that the same abilities will count.)

These questions become much sharper when heavy stigma is involved.  Right now in Europe there is political strife about the Roma, the Gypsies, who are have been so outcast for so long that they have formed their own society with their own standards -- many of which prey on the mainstream -- at least from the point of view of the mainstream.  Theft, child trafficking, spontaneous encampments with deficient sanitation.  And yet they are alluring: sexy, mysterious, accessing forms of knowledge we only imagine.  So do we want to suppress that?  But scrub them up, make them go to school, take away their fortune-telling -- that’s cultural destruction.  “So we are thieves!” they say.  “How else can we survive since you shut us out everywhere?”  So what do we do -- subsidize MBA degrees for everyone?  (I’m hearing that MBA degrees are no guarantee.  In fact, nothing is a guarantee, despite all the social technology.)

Those “black/up” folks who want to think out the problem neatly always deal in clear edges and definitions that stay on the obvious surface, while the green/down folks are more likely to understand the earthy mycelia that link the stigmatized to the whole mainstream.  For instance, sex work.  One side thinks of medical inspection, vaccines, regulated spaces, standards and licenses.  The other knows full well that sex for personal motives that might or might not include money, might or might not be planned, might or might not be exploitative -- well, that’s where the story begins.  Maybe poetry and song as well.  We already know that a pure technological approach to human society is likely to end up in gas and ash.  

Is this really different from the blue/red spectrum that has led us into purple paralysis?  Where does it show the alternatives in governing or categorizing?  How does it define humanness in a way that prevents kings as well as cannibals?  From watching the You Tube of Fuller (Steve) explaining I get the idea that he’s talking about a two-step process:  encouraging or even forcing experiment but also supplying a safety net if the experiment fails.  What we see over and over is that we take the chance and then there is no second stage:  empty the mental health warehouses but don’t provide the community centers.  AND suppress the news of the consequences, so we neither feel badly about it nor learn from it.  Throw everyone off welfare -- but people are already starving in the streets.  Now what?

Maybe the biggest risk we took in recent centuries without any fall-back position was the War Between the States.  Slavery only morphed into new forms: they say there are more black men in jails now than were ever in chains on plantations.  Prosperity for the South has not returned "organically".  Or maybe an even bigger deliberate social experiment was Native American reservations.  It hasn’t worked out the way we expected.  

So what have we learned?  If we can define “social epistomology,” does that help us?  It’s a lot more fun to just go to the movies.

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