Humanity+ Event at Zero1 Garage: Zoltan Istvan’s Inconsistencies Abound

I went to a Humanity+ networking event at Zero1 Garage in San Jose this week.  It was organized by Humanity+ magazine editor Peter Rothman.  Presentations were given by seminal transhumanist Natasha Vita-More, media artist Jason Wilson, and writer Zoltan Istvan.  I missed the beginning of Vita-More’s talk (which was delivered via Skype) and had a hard time picking up the gist of it, but she seemed to be discussing ways in which people could promote the idea of transhumanism.  She mentioned some books that she recommends: Design of Everyday Things, Art of Innovation, and her own Transhumanist Reader.

I don’t really get the point behind advocating for transhumanism myself.  To me transhumanism is a misnomer.  Humans have always augmented themselves and always will.  To augment is essentially human.  It’s what technology is all about.  I guess one can imagine some significant thresholds where technology has been integrated into our bodies, like pacemakers or artificial hips or something.  Just kidding, a significant threshold would probably be something like the ability to perform Google searches by merely thinking about a query.  But we have crossed similar technology thresholds in the past like language, the written word, and the internet, without feeling the need to come up with new species classifications.  Nonetheless, I’d rather hang out with transhumanists than a bunch of sports fans or something.

I met Peter Rothman a couple of times and he is a cool guy.  He is more cultural than a lot of the computer people one is apt to meet.  I like how he invited Jason Wilson to speak at this event.  I have seen Wilson’s Outer Body Labs at various events like the Singularity Summit or DEF CON.  They provide technology assisted “out of body” experiences by putting you into video goggles that block your normal view of the world but give you a view of yourself transmitted from a nearby camera.  You are basically seeing yourself move around and perform tasks from outside of your body, which I imagine is very disorienting.  Wilson describes the experience as, “breaking the agency of eyesight.”  You can’t control where the camera points, and this helps to put your own subjectivity into perspective.  Given that humans seem better at judging others than judging ourselves, experiencing an outside view of yourself might increase your sense of objectivity.  I plan on heading over to Wilson’s studio one of these days to check it out firsthand.

Following Wilson, Zoltan Istvan gave a talk on his book, The Transhumanist Wager.  I guess it’s about a guy who takes over the world in order to live forever.  I didn’t read it, and from the various book reviews I have found online, I don’t think I will.  Istvan is basically arguing that transhumanists should form cells and start combating religious groups directly.  I’m not kidding; here is an excerpt from his interview with Serious Wonder:

Z: I’m currently creating networks of transhuman activists across America and beyond that will begin systematic confrontations against those that are hostile to life extension and human enhancement science. I plan to use aggressive tactics that will garner media attention for spreading transhumanism. Of course, I’m also using my novel, The Transhumanist Wager, as a tool for how passionate that activism should be …

Now you might be thinking, “Why are you bothering to dig into this madness?”  But the fact is that Istvan doesn’t come across as crazy in person.  I stayed and spoke with him after his presentation.  He is an intelligent and articulate person.  During his talk, Istvan lamented the lack of funding being applied to research into aging.  One hears the same point made at the Health Extension Salon, and this is a good point which I agree with.  Aging research should get more funding.  But Istvan seems to think that confronting religious people is the way to bring that about.  I told him that I don’t think any of the elites controlling policy in this country are actually religious, but he asserted that I am living in a Bay Area bubble.   He thinks the elites in this country are religious, and he pointed to the suppression of stem cell research by the Bush administration as an example of that.

My sense has always been that policy makers use the religious views of the population to craft wedge issues that can be used to distract the public from more important problems and to win elections.  Gay marriage is a good example, and I assume that stem cell research is just an unfortunate casualty of such a strategy.  I don’t believe that Bush or any of the elites running this country hold actual religious beliefs that affect their decision making.  The very idea seems ludicrous.  It seems clear that there is a negative correlation between intelligence and religious belief.  I also assume that that it takes smarts to operate in the ranks of policy makers.

So to me it’s deeply misguided to go picking fights with a bunch of poor, muddled religious folks and try to beat them into submission to their transhumanist overlords.  Because, you know, religious folks are probably more tolerant of dying for their beliefs than rationalists will tend to be.  Just saying.  I’m no activist, but if you want to get funding for life extension, focus on the billionaires that really pull the strings in society.  I’m sure some of those plutocrats would cough up some cash if you could convince them that there was some chance they could benefit directly.  But as I said, I’m not an activist.  People that adopt the technology characterized as transhumanist will simply outcompete those that don’t.  No one can stop this technology from being created.  Bush’s ban on embryonic stem cells might have just pushed more research into adult stem cells (iPSC), and it certainly didn’t stop stem cell progress.

Istvan’s cognitive framework is fraught with inconsistencies.  He’s a big proponent of individual freedom, but then advocates a global law enforcing secular education.  That’s just incoherent from any angle you look at it.  I would expect an individual freedoms guy to go for Sudbury style schooling (free schooling, in which kids teach themselves) or something.  Certainly the top-down, global law approach is inconsistent with individual liberty.  Also this intense advocation for the primacy of the individual offends my embedded cognition sensibilities.  Consider Nicholas Christakis’ work, which shows that human behavior is deeply influenced by the behavior of those around us.  I am sympathetic to those monarchists who point out the shortcomings of decision by committee.  I see that there are some inherent coordination costs that impact group decision making.  But I will still assert that advanced cognition is impossible in the absence of social interaction.  Cognitive agents cannot be formed without social interaction and cannot operate for extended periods of time in isolation.  So it seems that cognition is a network dependent process.

My Less Wrong friends may tell me that this empirical “outside view” is susceptible to the Black Swan effect; you can’t predict a new thing by examining the things you have seen already.  It may be that Artificial General Intelligence (AGI) agents will not be constrained by network limitations and will have a totally different sort of cognition.  Go on Less Wrong and you will find much talk of utility functions.  But there is a wide gulf to cross between the natural language utility function of “maximize paper clips” and the computer code that describes that function and can actually act on it in the real world.  This gulf is only crossed by much handwaving.  I’m not trying to beat up on Yudkowsky et al, I actually like and admire those folks.  I will leave the LW bashing to Alexander Kruel who has some bug in his rear about them.  I just remain unconvinced of the viability of agents that are not network constrained.  Thus, hard individualism is invalid.

Another one of Istvan’s inconsistencies showed itself when he complained that the older generation was holding back progress toward immortality.  Now this strikes me as somewhat ironic.  If immortality is so great, I asked him how he imagined that society would progress in the absence of successive generations.  Istvan declined to speculate about that and made some vague reference to AI changing how progress would occur, which isn’t such a bad cop out.  Sure, AI will do the thinking for us, no problem.  But this very point was brought up by a young woman at a recent East Bay Futurist meetup.  She pointed out that each generation is uniquely positioned to understand the era they matured in.  This is not a concern that I readily dismiss.

It may be true that immortal humans will be more flexible than the crystallized old folks of today.  However, I suspect that they will tend to hold on to core aspects of their identity.  Why live forever if the entity that exists isn’t in some way recognizably you?  A sense of identity is that which we develop over time as we draw a border around what is and is not within ourselves.  It is probably a function of synaptic pruning.  It may be that a society of immortals will be less evolvable and less able to address changing conditions as I discussed previously.  I am sympathetic to the view that AI or Intelligence Amplification (IA) can mitigate this risk, but it’s a real risk posed by immortality that futurists should take into consideration.

I have other problems with Istvan, like the way he holds the radical views of his book at arm’s length, claiming that he doesn’t fully subscribe to the views of his characters.  I would accept that if he was just another fiction author and not promoting the same basic agenda as his book does.  At the end of the day though, Istvan seems like a starry eyed idealist unaware of the political realities of the real world.  This is hard to reconcile with the fact that he is a world traveller and person of action.  Nonetheless, I am glad that I met him because at least it helped me to clarify my own position.  I just hope he doesn’t go triggering some huge public backlash against transhumanists by doing something rash.  Because if that happens, I want the religious police to notice that I have publicly disavowed the word transhumanist many times.  I am just a regular human who likes tools, ok?

3 thoughts on “Humanity+ Event at Zero1 Garage: Zoltan Istvan’s Inconsistencies Abound

  1. >Another one of Istvan’s inconsistencies showed itself when he complained that the older generation was holding back progress toward immortality. Now this strikes me as somewhat ironic.

    I’ve heard Istvan say something like that on a couple of podcasts. Transhumanists in general have said incoherent and even nonsensical things about life extension and immortality at least since the 1970’s. Refer to my review of Robert Anton Wilson’s book “Cosmic Trigger”:

    Basically they’ve followed a pattern where every generation they have to add 30 years to the date when the alleged life extension breakout occurs, and I just find this ridiculous. What will the current crop of transhumanists say when Ray Kurzweil dies on schedule, for example? I looked up the actuarial tables and performed a calculation on a spreadsheet, and an American man Ray’s current age (65) has 22 out of 100 odds of dying in the next ten years. Think of it as pulling the trigger once in Russian Roulette using a 5-chambered revolver.

    The novel could also have benefited from a more sophisticated understanding of, say, cognitive science or behavioral economics, where the transhumanists got their way by using their knowledge to perform nonviolent “Jedi mind tricks” on the population to preserve the illusion that people have complied through their own volition.

  2. I have taken the liberty to edit out some of “Bert’s” Ad Hominem attacks from this comment. I will save the original rant text and if Bert wants to resubmit with an account that reveals his FULL NAME then I would let it stand. (ala Douglas Rushkoff, I assume that revealing one’s identity will make them more civil.)

    Hi Scott. It was nice seeing you the other day in that vile cesspool of excess, greed, and conspicuous consumption known as Whole Foods. I dearly overpaid for a 1.2 lb wad of grassfed ground-beef, and the $15 watermelon I ate afterwards had my taste-buds dancing and my soul withering. I can only justify my trips to Whole Foods by telling myself that I don’t have to drive (very far), so I’m doing the right thing by the environment. The cheapest alternative would involve driving to CostCo, a place even more depressing and soul-sucking than IKEA, where the real ugliness of America is displayed in full-frontal, hung-to-the-knees vulgarity, all full of warts and purplish veins. The last time I shopped at CostCo, though, I got a hold of some bad chicken laced with what must’ve been a genetically-altered super strain of ass-busting Salmonella. In between saline drips, I promised myself that I would never buy food at CostCo again (a 24 pack of miniature flashlights, maybe), and Berkeley Bowl is too damn far from my house, so for the time being, I guess I’ll just have to deal with those brain-washing hucksters at Whole Foods. And Safeway is now on my shit-list. After they started making us pay for bags, the quality of the bags actually got WORSE. Those thin rags won’t even hold a gallon of milk now, and the handles rip off too easily. Anyway, here’s a middle finger to our local grocers. While I’m at it, here’s a middle finger to our local farmer’s markets, too, with their $4/lb organic cherries, multi-hued dwarf potatoes (at a more-than-full-size price), and their out-of-towner foot-stall flunkies. These days eating out is cheaper and less hazardous to one’s health than buying groceries and cooking at home. Am I not the only one who’s noticed how dang expensive grocery stores have become?

    • I pulled some of Bert’s comment from above, but I will try to address some of the points he made.
      Said with all the grace and aplomb of a punk rocker, Bert.

      I do think that all plastic surgery patients should be screened for BDD and offered Cognitive Behavior Therapy prior to going under the knife. There might even be a BDD sub-text running throughout transhumanism. I can’t say. The only things remotely transhumanist that I am really into are Charles Stross and Iain M. Banks novels. (I am reading Neptune’s Brood right now which is so-so.)

      When you attack fight-theif-magi It seems that you are criticizing generalists from a specialist’s perspective. It seems clear that both are needed and that the generalist can never achieve the same proficiency in any one field that the specialist has. Conversely, the specialist can never develop the sense of context that a generalist has. I consider myself something of a generalist myself, so I will go to bat for the fight/theif/magic-users if need be.

      I doubt that home prepared food will ever be as filthy as restaurant food, but I fully concur on Berkeley Bowl being the best local market but just too far away. Also, I actually enjoy the experience and the food from Whole Foods, so I avert my eyes from it’s corporate blemishes.

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