Digital Skeptic or Analog Celebrant … Which Frame Would You Choose? (part two of two)

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Welcome to part two. Let me see if I can get you up to speed. In part one I talked about two frames: digital skeptic and digital celebrant. Simply, digital skeptics view the rise of the digital age with a fair bit of caution and reserve. On the other hand, digital celebrants, well, celebrate the coming and arrival of the digital age. I first encountered these frames reading Robert McChesney’s 2013 book entitled Digital Disconnect—How Capitalism Is Turning the Internet Against Democracy. In his book McChesney credits Robin Mansell with developing these frames. McChesney argues that the conflict between the digital skeptic frame and the digital celebrant frame essentially gives rise to what could be called a “Straw Man fallacy.” Such a fallacy, argues McChesney, takes light off the real conflict: Internet monopolists, like Zuckerberg, Gates, the late Jobs, and Schmidt (of Google fame), are “marketizing” or monetizing the Internet and, as a result, are killing any potential the Internet may provide as far as revitalizing democracy.

Well, OK, but in part one I argue that the frames digital skeptic and digital celebrant are misleading and do not appropriately convey what is really going on as we continue to go through a huge paradigm shift: moving from a human state to a posthuman state. Here are the frames that I propose and my reason for proposing them.

As we continue to move through a paradigm shift of tectonic proportions—moving from a human state to a posthuman state—I propose that the following frames best capture this shift:

human or analog celebrant — vs — posthuman or digital celebrant

You see, both frames are celebrant frames; the key is to determine what is being celebrated. The human or analog celebrant frame celebrates people as being primarily biologically based and guided by certain innate behavioral systems such as sex, caregiving, and attachment. The posthuman or digital celebrant frame celebrates people as being primarily mechanically based and no longer constrained by innate behavioral systems of any kind. In his book The Blank Slate—The Modern Denial of Human Nature, Steven Pinker talks about how the Blank Slate movement expresses a desire to throw off the constraints of innate behavioral systems such as sex, caregiving, and attachment. In short, the Blank Slate worldview—which has infiltrated areas such as sociology, education, politics, and psychology—is part and parcel of the posthuman or digital celebrant worldview. Digital celebrants are jubilant because they see the digital age as the Grand Blank Slate. The main reason I prefer my frames is because they acknowledge the rise of the Blank Slate movement. In contrast, the Mansell frames cover over the fact that there is a huge movement—posthumanism—that seeks to deny and transcend human nature.

OK, how do my frames change McChesney’s argument that Internet monopolists will erode democratic systems and processes for both digital skeptics and digital celebrants alike? Well, McChesney believes that both digital skeptics and digital celebrants believe in a human state and, as a consequence, have an equal interest in preserving democracy. At the end of part one I argue that human celebrants celebrate human democracy because humanness (and all of the biological messiness that goes along with it) and democracy go hand-in-hand. In contrast, posthuman celebrants do not necessarily celebrate human democracy (with its connections back to biology) because as humanness continues to fade, so too the need for democratic systems and processes. Ergo, it may well be that as posthuman celebrants or Blank Slaters throw off the need for biology, they may also throw off the need for democracy. If this is true then posthuman or digital celebrants will by extension embrace Internet monopolists who are eroding human democracy (and along with it human biology) as they marketize or monetize the Internet. This is why in my book Bowlby’s Battle for Round Earth I argue that the efforts of cyberneticists (e.g., Internet monopolists) are short-circuiting against the desires of posthumanists or Blank Slaters to throw off the constraints of biology. Least you think that I am pulling this thesis out of thin air, you can find this idea expressed in two books:

The Rise of the Creative Class: And How It’s Transforming Work, Leisure, Community and Everyday Life by Richard Florida
Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community by Robert Putnam

So, as promised in part one, lets do two things: 1) look at how far along we have moved toward a posthuman state, and 2) what happens when you marketize or monetize innate behavioral systems like sex, caregiving, and sex.

In an article entitled Intelligent Robots Will Overtake Humans by 2100, Experts Say, staff writer Tia Ghose provides a snapshot of how far we have moved toward a posthuman state. Ghose writes:

In his book The Singularity is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology (Viking, 2005), futurist Ray Kurzweil predicted that computers will be as smart as humans by 2029, and that by 2045, “computers will be billions of times more powerful than unaided human intelligence,” Kurzweil wrote in an email to LiveScience.

There you go. Kurweil predicts that in 2045— a mere 32 years from now—we will meet the Singularity: the point in time when we will be able to move our human intelligence from a biologically based brain over to a mechanically based brain. Quoting Bill Hibbard, a computer scientist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Ghose writes that even a “pessimistic guess” as to when the Singularity will occur means “it’s going to happen during the lifetime of people who are already born.”

Ghose provides the following quote by Hibbard:

Once the singularity occurs, people won’t necessarily die (they can simply upgrade with cybernetic parts), and they could do just about anything they wanted to—provided it were physically possible and didn’t require too much energy.

As you would expect, there are some Singularity Skeptics (or who I would call Human Celebrants). Consider this quote from Ghose’s article:

“I don’t see any sign that we’re close to a singularity,” said Ernest Davis, a computer scientist at New York University.

While AI [artificial intelligence] can trounce the best chess or Jeopardy player and do other specialized tasks, it’s still light-years behind the average 7-year-old in terms of common sense, vision, language and intuition about how the physical world works, Davis said.

For instance, because of that physical intuition, humans can watch a person overturn a cup of coffee and just know that the end result will be a puddle on the floor. A computer program, on the other hand, would have to do a laborious simulation and know the exact size of the cup, the height of the cup from the surface and various other parameters to understand the outcome, Davis said.

But notice what’s going on here. Posthuman celebrants celebrate the idea that some but not all aspects of humanness will make the jump to a posthuman state. Posthumans are comfortable throwing off such things as intuition, empathy, emotion, sex, attachment, caregiving, human nature, and, dare I say, democracy. As one example, if all you have to do is replace a broken part, then the need for caregiving goes by the wayside. Posthuman celebrants celebrate the merging of so-called rational or left-brain intelligence with a mechanical host. Posthuman celebrants in essence celebrate throwing off those things that many (such as neurobiologist Antonio Damasio) consider to be what defines us as human beings: biology, emotion, innate behavioral systems, empathy, etc. And even a posthumam celebrant such as Hibbard recognizes that the move toward the Singularity will be fraught with potential problems (like the ones McChesney points out). Ghose gives us the following quote by Hibbard:

There are such strong financial incentives in using technology in ways that aren’t necessarily in everyone’s interest. That’s going to be a very difficult problem, possibly an unsolvable problem.

But, again, I would suggest that Internet monopolists will use (and are using) technology in a way that will be detrimental to human celebrants (and their love of such things as biology, innate behavioral systems, empathy, human nature, intuition, etc.) on one hand, and a boon for posthuman celebrants, who wish to throw off these human trappings or frailties, on the other. When it comes to Internet monopolists, one person’s destruction is another’s rebirth. It all depends on the frame that you use. If you glean nothing more from this blog series, ask yourself, “Am I a human celebrant or am I a posthuman celebrant?” And it may well be that you’re a “model switcher” (pulling from Lakoff): a human celebrant in certain areas and a posthuman celebrant in others.

Let me end by briefly mentioning an article entitled What Can Be Wrong With Growth? by Peter Marris (contact the Foundation for a copy—used by permission). Marris talks about what happens when you marketize or monetize such things as sex, caregiving, and attachment. In essence, Marris looks at what will happen if Internet monopolists are successful. Here’s a “great” summary statement by Marris:

Attachment cannot be conceived in terms of marketable goods, any more than markets can be conceived in terms of attachments. And we have to recognize that the conditions that sustain secure attachments are often in conflict with the ideal conditions of market efficiency.

Simply, market efficiencies (which often tend toward monopolies according to both McChesney and Marris) work against those things—biology, emotion, body, empathy, insight, innateness, etc.—that principally define us as human beings. Human celebrants bemoan this fact whereas posthuman celebrants, well, celebrate. Marris gives us this “bottom line”:

Only when we confront the incompatibilities between the conditions which sustain attachments, and the conditions which allocate resources most productively, can we begin to think how to reconcile them. … The single-minded, unconditional advocacy of competitive markets [now taking up residence on the Internet] would lead ultimately to such disintegrated [human] societies that no markets could flourish.

But, again, I think what posthuman celebrants celebrate is a time in the not-too-distant future (circa the Singularity of 2045) when such things as markets, democracy, economies, work, communities, attachments, etc., will disappear. Honestly, I don’t think anyone has any idea what exactly will exist after the Singularity. Consider this quote by microbiologist Joan Slonczewski (provided by Ghose): “The question is, could we evolve ourselves out of existence, being gradually replaced by the machines? I think that’s an open question.” I’ll agree; it’s an open question, but a question worth considering. And as Francis Fukuyama argues in his book Our Posthuman Future—Consequences of the Technological Revolution, there are many signposts already visible on the road toward posthumanism. Here are just a few (notice how the market influences and drives each of these):

1) feeding young kids behavioral drugs like Ritalin and Adderall
2) designer babies
3) cloning
4) genetically modified (GM) foods
5) certain assisted reproductive technologies (such as the current search for an artificial womb to get us past the messiness and imprecision of a real womb)
6) genetic engineering

To the above list I would add the following:

1) parentifying or adultifying young children (a practice even Bowlby railed against)
2) selling to young children (see Juliet Shor’s book Born to Buy for more)
3) kids (and many adults) attaching to robots like smartphones and Facebook (see Sherry Turkle’s book Alone Together for more)
4) kids not experiencing the outdoors (see Richard Louv’s book Last Child in the Woods for more)
5) pathologizing normal grief (as talked about in the article entitled The Fight Over What Grief Means)
6) wholesale denial of human nature (see Steven Pinker’s book The Blank Slate for more)

Taken as a whole (which I would argue one must do) it is clear that we have progressed considerably along the highway toward a posthuman state. Again, human celebrants will see such movement as destruction, others (such as posthuman celebrants) will see this as rebirth.

One final thought. Richard Louv in his book Last Child in the Woods—Saving Our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder, worries that if children spend all of their time inside ensconced in digital worlds, there will be no next generation of conservationists. In essence, one will not be so motivated to conserve an environment one has had no contact with or experience of. Louv, through his organization Children & Nature Network (which our Foundation has supported in the past), tries to simply get children into the outdoors as a way of creating a pool of potential future conservationists. McChesney makes a similar type of argument. McChesney worries that if children spend all of their time effectively addicted to the Internet, there will be no next generation of democracy conservationists (my frame). In my opinion, body, biology, the natural environment, human nature, analog worlds, attachment, innateness, empathy, democracy—they’re all connected. That’s my human celebration. According to Wikipedia, “Philanthropy etymologically means ‘love of humanity’ in the sense of caring for, nourishing, developing, and enhancing ‘what it is to be human.’ ” I would suggest that philanthropy is inherently a celebration of humanness. Is it possible that we are witnessing the birth of philanmachina—love of machine.

Note: I’ll be taking a blogging break while I go out into the natural environment for the Memorial Day weekend break. Like the popular truck commercial, I’m going to take along my cell phone so I can celebrate the arrival of the NO SIGNAL message.