Friday, April 22, 2011

Transhumanism: "If It Sounds Too Good to be True, It Probably IS!"

Today, I came across an article by Patrick D. Hopkins, A Moral Vision For Transhumanism. Overall, I found nothing to seriously disagree with, even if it is a bit utopian.  To be fair, I don’t think Hopkins intended to predict how we will apply transhumanist technologies; he simply asserts in the article what transhumanism ought to stand for, regardless of how and to what ends Homo sapiens sapiens will use these technologies after they're invented.  

In this article, Hopkins argues convincingly that, for all our ideas of and wishings for utopia, Homo sapiens are simply not mentally and emotionally equipped to handle utopian states of affairs. Presumably, in utopia, we'd have few to no unmet needs.  In that case, Utopia would not be a state of eternal bliss but a state of boredom.  We humans have evolved to ultimately like struggle, perhaps even conflict.  Therefore, living in the very Utopia we desire would necessitate reengineering human nature itself (presumably through a combination of both genetic and/or neurological engineering; and adding artificial intelligence to our brains besides).

His next claim also seems true to human nature: without changing our basic mentality, we’d not be transhuman but merely superhuman – merely a greater abundance of the same physical and mental abilities we so often blindly admire, but with the same instincts and emotions that cause so much conflict in this world.  While I definitely agree with Hopkins here, I think it's by no means the only objection most people would have to transhumanism. I find it much more likely that people will oppose it because humans love "human nature" just the way it is so much that the great majority will not be willing to embrace the change.

People will give any number of objections why we shouldn’t change human nature even were it in our power to do so.  Primarily they fall into either one of the following categories:

(a) stick-in-the-mud conservatism (That’s just the way we are; If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it; etc)
(b) fear of the unknown (this is not entirely unreasonable, given that if we can control the minutest details of genetic engineering and our brains, the possibilities of transhumanism are limited only by the human imagination - and later the transhuman one besides)
(c) egotism (too much pride in the way human nature is)
(d) petty personal distaste at the possibilities of our nature becoming radically different (We won’t be human any more!)
(e) the established “winners” among Homo sapiens fear they’ll lose power (again, given human nature desire for power, glory, and control even in the most "civilized" societies, this is not a groundless worry).

Excuse the anthropomorphism, but it makes the idea easier to get across. Nature has already been genetically engineering Homo sapiens for a few hundred thousand years already, and in ways we don’t like besides (e.g., we’re often violent, dishonest, belligerent, bigoted or otherwise judging others by their superficial traits, and being hypocritical about it besides).  If we develop the technology and techniques to purge these traits from our nature, then why shouldn't we use them?  If anything, failure to purge these traits would be a dereliction of duty to humanity.

My Opposition to Transhumanism on Practical Grounds

Yet, at the same time, I generally oppose transhumanist schemes even if they prove to yield only ten percent of the results their most ardent boosters claim they will be able to yield.  This is because the power to change the nature of life is so powerful that any mishap or misuse is likely to cause a cataclysmic catastrophe for at least a large segment of society. In fact, given the potential of transhumanist technologies to change human nature itself, I would say that safe use of them requires human nature itself to change before they are used.  This is putting the cart before the horse.  Given the human drive for power and domination at all costs plus our natural contempt and personal distaste for anyone strikingly different from ourselves, I find it far more likely that reengineering human nature will make our superhuman descendants - on average - even more despicable than we are now; or at least make this world even more unpleasant to live in. At the very least, it will give a lot of our post-human descendants enhanced abilities without empathy and compassion commensurate to that power they possess. In this case, we can't simply hope that the "good post-humans" can successfully defend mere humans and/or less-developed post-humans like some superhero; for unlike in the movies or graphic novels, there's no guarantee the good guys will win in the end.  

In fact, one can very well argue that our technology is already too powerful for our present level of compassion or empathy for others. After all, were our empathy and compassion commensurate with our technology, then why do we still - in this day and age - still have a world that requires soldiers, police, and social workers – just to name three?  This is especially true for societies as highly educated as 21st century Earth.  As explained above, it's highly unlikely we'll use this technology to purge the worst of humanity's baser instincts from ourselves - which means that a post-human world can easily be a lot worse than this one. Continuing the graphic novel analogy, imagine a super-villain with the raw strength of a gorilla and the reflexes of a cat. Then imagine it has more intelligence than any of us currently do - even making the proverbial Einstein seem to have the IQ of a rodent by comparison. Consider how easily he or she could dominate you or even the world. Now consider a whole species of such people.  Therefore, if we don’t change the nature of these superhumans before we give them superpowers, namely by purging them of the most destructive and self-centered tendencies we find in our present selves, how much chance would Homo sapiens have in a battle with them?
It may well be the case that the more high-minded, idealist segment of humanity will change themselves or, more likely, gene-enginner their children, into being truly transhuman rather than mere superhuman.  Even so, the fact remains that even idealistic sounding liberal movements take time to seep into the mass consciousness.   The mental and emotional ideas and memes required to transhumaninize as opposed to superhumanize Homo sapiens will likely take at least a full century,  very possibly a few.  During that time, there will undoubtedly be people using the technology, theoretically usable for transhumanization, to merely superhumanize their offspring - essentially making us either quasi-supervillians or quasi-superheroes (no doubt created to deter the supervillains.  In short, it'll be a kind of arms race based on genetic or other kinds of enhancements. This will very likely create a worst of both worlds scenario:  Enhancement in physical strength, agility, and mental cunning without any improvement in the being’s empathy, sympathy, open-mindedness, tolerance, and compassion.  This is exactly the situation we risk if we don’t enhance our compassion and concern for others before we genetically and mentally augment ourselves.

Unfortunately, for my stated reasons, it seems much more realistic to expect that advent of the ability to reengineer ourselves in all aspects is more likely to lead to dystopia rather than utopia; thereby making the world an even worse place than it currently is.  For these reasons, I cannot help but be concerned about humanity’s future; for history shows that anything inventible by humans will be invented and used by us.  It is also one reason I don’t think humanity will exist much longer than a few more centuries.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Response to Dan of "Take the Bully By The Horns"

This is a response to Dan of Take the Bully By the Horns . While I find a few parts agreeable, I believe the advice relies too much on traditional paradigms to truly improve the overall bullying situation in schools. This is especially true when tackling the overall cultural attitudes that allow bullying to spring forth and even flourish.  In short, the only true way to reduce bullying sustainably is to change our culture in general.  That includes changing the adult cultural attitudes toward weakness and "going along to getting along".  With this said, I'll get to Dan's post.

If you are an adult who knows a lot of children and teens, the chances are good that some of them shared experiences with you about being bullied. Some people give the wrong suggestions to a victim of bullying. The purpose of this article is to help guide you in the right direction to effectively help a bullied kid.

This short article is fairly opinionated, as every situation is different and outcomes are seldom perfect. This article probably won't be useful if you're dealing with a kid who is experiencing very severe forms of bullying.

Do not suggest to someone that they run away from bullies, or tell them they should snitch

You're better off engaging in a fight then running away, unless it is a group that's chasing you. A kid at school has a reputation to maintain and weak, cowardly people are naturally unpopular. The same thing is true of bullies but for different reasons of course. If the kid is small, perhaps he should join a wrestling team or a martial arts school to build up strength and work around the limitations of his small frame. The latter is likely to be a better bet initially.

People who tell on others a lot naturally have a bad reputation, and they are not likely to have a lot of friends. They are not self sufficient and they are not fun to hang out with. .

Firstly, all the above are just short-term fixes at best.  They does nothing to change the CULTURE that supports bullying,  Contempt for weakness (or cowardice) is among the worst of these traits. Does that mean the weak or timid person can’t be an honorable, decent human being?  Does that mean weak and timid people have no integrity, civility, and kindness?  Does that mean they can’t be  fun to hand out with in the proper setting (not that that being “fun” should be a huge criteria of your respect-worthiness).  

Secondly “Being fun to hang out with” sounds too close to  “go along to get along” for my comfort.  This is precisely what leads to peer pressure. Worse yet, this is the exact opposite of the very courage you seek to instill.  Also, this is akin to an adult not reporting a physical battery to the police on the grounds that he’s snitching.  Some may say “kids are kids, adults are adults”, but in this case that’s merely an arbitrary distinction set by the culture.  As far as I’m concerned, if you’re old enough to know it’s wrong (and most teenagers do), then you should be held responsible for your actions.

Put all this together, this advice amounts to little more than “Be like the normal, sensible, self-respecting people with strong backbone or be worth less than the gum that sticks to your shoes”.  That kind of message isn’t going to lead to any kind of sustainable improvement in the situation – whether for the bullied, the bully, or the school culture.  It’s just the same advice that appeals more to our animal-based prejudices, those that on a larger scale held back so many segments of our society for so long.

Negative gestures and comments deserve responses

Whether you're an adult in the workplace experiencing unnecessary negative feedback or a teenager in high school who hears a comment that is the least bit pushy or rude, it is deserving of a response that is equally as potent. You probably agree that its rude to tell someone to "Move!" if they're not standing out of place. Bullies test you out with small stuff, then they work their way into more things over time after they see how passive their victim is.

Maybe I’m reading too much into your remarks, but there’s a subtle undertext here that reinforces the tired old adage “bullying builds character”.  While it’s important to give kids the cognitive tools necessary to assert their rights, it’s a huge leap of faith to imply that it prepares them for the adult world.  I don’t suppose you’d look down on an adult being bullied at work if he or she went to personnel to deal with the matter.  Why should children be any different, other than our own cultural biases about the "proper" role of youth behavior vis-a-vis its adult counterpart(or human nature, if you prefer)?

This is not to say that any snappy comment is coming from a bully trying to soften you up. This is more about building and maintaining boundaries as well as self confidence.

While verbal assertiveness is important go gain breathing space, this is only another short-term fix at best. What all of society needs to do to help the bullied feel more secure and self-confidence is to attack the cultural attitudes that that not only turn a blind eye to, but even encourage bullying.  That’s how we took a big bite out of racism, sexism, homophobia, anti-semitism, and a whole host of other bigotries.  No one or even small group of people could accomplish that by themselves – it takes a wholesale cultural change to get rid of an evil.  If we could do it for those deeply entrenched bigotries, why not for bullying?

Stress the importance of eye contact and how to interact with peers

Someone who is quick to look away from someone while talking with them appears timid. If someone approaches you for something, they should be the one to look away / walk away first when the conversation is over with. This helps to maintain equality among peers.

People who talk in a sad or guilty tone are likely to be yelled at more than most people. A tone of voice that is apologetic is provocative to a hot headed person that is easily annoyed by people who are weak.

If you're talking in an apologetic manner then it appears that you don't believe in yourself. Get some pride if this is the case, and you will be more assertive. If you notice someone looking at you, it's best to look back at them right away, in a non judgmental fashion. I don't think its worth pretending that you don't notice. This way you give off a vibe that says "I won't let you mess with me."

This I do find partially agreeable, even if incomplete. While this would do a lot to deter bullies, the problem with the advice is that the very basis of the target's pride was somehow destroyed by some incident or another.  It could be their incompetence in what they really would like to do or it could be that the youth culture disdains the very things at which they are most competent (more about this next). So it’s not going to be as simple as just telling them to “get some pride”.  After all, pride doesn’t just pop up out of a vacuum; it’s based on precedents earlier in the young person’s life.

Very obscure interests should possibly be kept private

In today's world individuality has become very popular. If a teenager is very fascinated by calculus or astronomy then they should get to know someone before talking about it that much. It is a stereotype that nerds get picked on but like most stereotypes, there is something in it. Every situation is different, it depends on the interests and the environment the youngster is in.

Again, this is more “going along to get along” – as though popularity with one’s peers should be the yardstick by which we should measure someone’s worth.  The mass of peers may do that, but I’m not sure letting popular opinion be “judge, jury, and executioner” is all that great at encouraging self-reliance and independent thought (the base of self-reliance).  Even worse, if the kid’s interest is something he or she can make a career of, then the message you are sending is actually counterproductive, both personally and – eventually – economically.  Perhaps there’s a reason that Silicon Valley is in San Francisco Bay Area , by definition, only a stone’s throw away from the famously weirdo-friendly city of SF itself . Also, the SF Bay metro area also has highest per capita income of any American metro area (yes, even higher than New York). 

Determine whether the victim of bullying is socially awkward and has a lot of annoying habits

Bullies might not bully just for the sake of dominance and amusement, they might be jealous or otherwise annoyed by traits of the victim. They get defensive when they bully for this reason.

Does the victim chew his gum loud? Does he smell bad? Does he have a high pitched voice?

While I agree that easy to correct traits should be dealt with (the first two you listed), the “high-pitched voice” part is likely not something that’s within his control, and therefore it’s grossly unfair to insist they change part of who they are, however superficially unappealing.  That’s like asking a fat and ugly girl to “make herself hot”.  Moreover, this  tells me more about how narrow-minded, intolerant, and judgmental people are over nit-picky, non-character traits than it does how wrong it is to have that last said trait and it’s implicit message “boys with high-pitched voices deserve disrespect, regardless of whatever positive traits they bring to the table”.

Whether its you or someone you know who is the victim of bullying, honestly is a very good step in solving the problem. Compare the victim to their peers. What things does the victim have, or what things does the victim lack? If a socially awkward person complains to you about being bullied, you should point that out to them. Don't be concerned about hurting their feelings, show them that you are trying to help and they will hopefully understand in time.

Half-way correct: it is giving them specific reasons they are bullied. However, the answer is framed in the wrong way.  If they are socially awkward, they should be given the tools to be proud of themselves in spite of their social awkwardness.  Even then, there’s an implicit condescension in this reason that tells them “YOU are the problem”, thereby further undermining the very self-esteem they need to attack bullying.  Rather, they should concentrate on building a rich inner life and REAL accomplishments  second-to-none (those with societally, culturally, or economically redeeming benefit LONG after high school). Not the least of these is to teach them how not to care about what their peers think, and teach them the mental process and logic behind being proud of themselves in spite of what their peers say.  Also, show them how to find their own authentic personality and express it in a way that’s culturally, societally and intellectually redeeming. Living well, emotionally speaking, is the best revenge - even more so than living financially well!

In the end, this advice, even if well-meaning, assumes that it’s more important to be respected by a tight-knit, All-American, in-crowd type than anything else – i.e. a clique culture I find excessively macho, excessively conformist, and indifferent (if not disdainful) of intellectualism.  This kind of central assumption isn’t going to lead to any kind of true improvement in our culture – only a reinforcement of the status quo “the majority is right because the majority says so” kind of pseudo-philosophy.