Thursday, June 7, 2012

The Neoliberal Singularity

Over at Amor Mundi, self-described techno-progressive Dale Carrico offers a critique of the would-be prophets of technological transcendence from the left (which seems to be going "viral," having reached me by way of Charles Stross, who in turn was pointed to it by Bruce Sterling). Carrico points out that there is little that is really new in the Singularitarian package, and that the currently prevailing version is rooted in the economic-political order emergent since the 1970s, and in particular, the outlook of its elites.

While Carrico's piece is interesting in itself, it is also interesting as a sign of the times, such criticisms growing more common now, with many a prediction falling flat, and the gap between the images of techno-transcendence and our lived experience widening. Still, while the prevailing vision of techno-transcendence comes with all the baggage of the world as it is now attached, it is only part of a bigger tradition, going back at least to the Epic of Gilgamesh, with a nearly unbroken line extending from Renaissance humanism down to our own time; and some of that tradition's currents have challenged the status quo rather than affirming it. Transcendence of life's limitations, after all, the escape from the realm of necessity to the realm of freedom, has always been part of the humanist project – the opponents of which have little to offer but the warmed-over philosophies of Old Regime reactionaries, recently repackaged as "postmodernism."1 Consequently, despite the ups and downs in its cachet it will not be going away soon – and it would seem that what is really called for is not just the debunking of Kurzweilian simplicities, but a genuinely forward-looking alternative vision.

1. As I have argued in my essay "The Post-Cyberpunk Moment" (which you can find in After the New Wave) postmodernism, while defying easy definition, is in line with the conservative tradition of Edmund Burke and Joseph de Maistre in its suspicion of the claims made for reason, rationality, and the idea of progress, and anything founded on them. Unsurprisingly (to quote the other piece where I raised the issue, "Space Cadet Politics"),
many of their pet ideas (their theorizing about the subject-object separation, or Michel Foucault's writing about power, for instance) are effectively a secular version of original sin theology, with much the same implications: a view of humanity as Fallen, and its every action, thought and motive tainted by that Fall.
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