Downwingers and dilettante-ism: Bryan Appleyard on Futurism

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Appleyard is a British journalist and contributor at The New Statesman, a generally well-respected if left-leaning political and cultural magazine that’s been around since 1913 and has hosted the musings of such luminaries as John Maynard Keynes, Richard Dawkins, and Christopher Hitchins. But this is the nature of modern journalism, so it’s not surprising that The New Statesman recently gave us yet another lesson that no matter what, or who, or where you imbibe your news and information, it’s a process which should be done with a critical eye. That’s why history, despite the best efforts of arts and humanities deans, school boards, and football coaches, is not going anywhere soon. It is the discipline, the most successful discipline, I think, that teaches evidence-based inquiry, critical thinking, and the big picture. Because without it, you might read this new article by Bryan Appleyard and think he knows what he’s talking about. Caveat: because this is the internet, I’d like to head off the professional offense-takers by saying I don’t think Appleyard himself is stupid. Many of his pieces are good. But smart, generally thoughtful people can say stupid things. Except me. I never say stupid things.

Check out the article here. Essentially, in a nutshell, he says futurists are all naïve utopians and we should never listen them, because doing so robs us of our humanity:

 http://www.newstatesman.com/culture/2014/04/why-futurologists-are-always-wrong-and-why-we-should-be-sceptical-techno-utopians

To begin: there are plenty of legitimate criticisms to be leveled at technoprogressives (a far more accurate, descriptive and less generally disingenuous term than Appleyard’s deliberate “techno-utopian”), so there’s little point in muddying the waters by making up illegitimate ones by expressing poor thinking using bad writing. Lack of consideration of all the sociocultural implications of the posthuman future, occasional prophetic tendencies, tendency to rely on trite, meaningless phraseology (“the future is now”), willingness to pin down a date past which “everything” will change—these are quality criticisms to be made, and yet don’t all movements have such elements within? So shouldn’t we be careful about generalizations?

Appleyard’s polemic is really a mess of logical fallacies, bad analogies, and clumsy attempts at ad hominem. To take but a few:

1)      He equates Ray Kurzweil and Michio Kaku, two well-educated and thoughtful individuals, with Malcolm Gladwell (who no one with legitimate experience in any of the areas Gladwell ventures takes too seriously, though he is fun to read and no doubt a smart guy) with caricatured versions of Larry Page and Peter Thiel (the former of whom is in probably the most compromised position on any discourse regarding technoprogressivism and the latter who is, plainly and simply, a bombastic, self-important dilettante), and then some anthropomorphized version of the Ted Talks (which Appleyard and I will agree are mostly white noise obfuscating the real signal). Such easy comparisons betray a lack of nuanced consideration of the vast differences between these individuals, and does the unfamiliar reader no favors during a time such as now when science is already under attack by ignorance and misdirection on so many fronts already.

2)      Appleyard attempts also to equate futurism with a religion, and the singularity with the Rapture (using the 2045 date as a straw man). Completely laughable, if you go even one step beyond the most superficial “structural” similarities Appleyard trots out as hard proof. Plus, anything that smacks of religion has to be bad, right?

3)      After criticizing Michio Kaku for uncritical use of language regarding DARPA’s mission, Appleyard spends the rest of the essay calling Kaku and Kurzweil manic, foaming-at-the-mouth, poppie (because anything the public likes can’t be intelligent, apparently) and a host of other less-than-subtle attempts at pejoratives designed to get you on his team.

And then there are statements like this:

“Neuroscientists now routinely make claims that are far beyond their competence, often prefaced by the words “We have found that . . .” The two most common of these claims are that the conscious self is a illusion and there is no such thing as free will . . . The first of these claims is easily dismissed – if the self is an illusion, who is being deluded? The second has not been established scientifically – all the evidence on which the claim is made is either dubious or misinterpreted – nor could it be established, because none of the scientists seems to be fully aware of the complexities of definition involved. In any case, the self and free will are foundational elements of all our discourse and that includes science. Eliminate them from your life if you like but, by doing so, you place yourself outside human society. You will, if you are serious about this displacement, not be understood. You will, in short, be a zombie.”

And all of a sudden neuroscientists are a monolithic entity who are, en masse, incapable of recognizing astonishing logical non sequitors that render everything they do idiotic.

So what’s really going on here? What’s with the tone and substance of this piece? I think Appleyard is afraid. He’s afraid of the future (though he may not want to admit it), and as such is looking to the past to calm himself down. Ehrlich (whose Population Bomb came out in 1968, before the full implications of Borlaug’s dwarf wheat (taking shape during the early and mid-1960s) would be realized) and Somer and all the others were wrong, and so the current generation of futurists has to be wrong too, right? Check this statement from the piece out: “We are, it is said, on the verge of mapping, modelling and even replicating the human brain and, once we have done that, the mechanistic foundations of the mind will be exposed. Then we will be able to enhance, empower or (more likely) control the human world in its entirety. This way, I need hardly point out, madness lies.”

The fact is this entire piece is really just a regurgitation of Max Dublin’s twenty five year-old Futurehype, which was a far better critique of the worst elements of the futurist tendency. In fact, it sounds like Appleyard’s piece reads like that of a downwinger. But I agree with Appleyard’s frustration and the general unhelpfulness of “technological chatter,” that which is heavy on the fluff and language and light on hard evidence. It’s why I wonder books like his own Aliens: Why They Are Here and How to Live Forever or Die Trying, the latter of which is promoted on the dust jacket with claims that it is Funny, thought-provoking and often profound, it manages to grapple with the big issues of existence without blinding the reader with science” get published. Because thanks Appleyard. I wouldn’t want to be blinded with science.

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