Your Thoughts Exactly: June 2006

Tuesday, June 06, 2006


The Answer

I've been a bad blogger. I even passed up a chance to talk about what possibly is my favorite topic, robot domination, and didn't even comment. It's ok, because it's been in good hands with Marmaniac.

I have a (more than) healthy dose of disillusionment with the American political system, but lately I've been coming around a bit from my previously leftist, views about our country. Sometimes it's hard to see something from the inside, and there are a lot of things about the US that are done, and even done well. Perhaps the nattering nabobs of negativity are just hard to resist, and we like to nitpick. In any case- free-markets, two-party system, smaller government- I think I like them! I'm not a republican, but here's something I did find particularly interesting.

The Unity08 effort, a "centrist initiative", plans on running a Democrat and Republican together on the same presidential ticket for the 2008 race. Normally this would be a simple publicity stunt, (perhaps that's all it will turn out to be) but in this case it's being backed by some real work and a real plan: to have a virtual convention (it sounds a little more professional that "you vote on the internet!") pick the candidates, and that ticket will run for the '08 Presidency. But that isn't what I like about it.

The big drive in Unity08 and the motive behind it is that partisanship is holding back American politics. By focusing the issues on their Crucial Issues:
Global terrorism, our national debt, our dependence on foreign oil, the emergence of India and China as strategic competitors and/or allies, nuclear proliferation, global climate change, the corruption of Washington’s lobbying system, the education of our young, the health care of all, and the disappearance of the American Dream for so many of our people.
And I think those are, by and large, what matter to Americans today. Sure, I've said that I think there's an overemphasis on terrorism, and perhaps the lobbying system comment is probably going to seem dated in a year, but the IDEA is there, and I like it. It's frustrating that Congress is convening to debate a Constitutional gay marriage ban (which has actually already failed before in Congress) when even its proponents know there is no chance of it passing. It's frustrating that nothing will happen in the next 5 months except campaigning and PR appearances.

The divide between the Republicans and Democrats is bigger than it has been in a while, and it's exacerbated by the us vs. them attitude. It's so easy to see the other side as idiotic talkboxes, especially when there are so many of them. But focusing on those idiots just allows us to ignore their more centrist cohorts, and they probably think they're idiots too. I think that shaking up the system, even if simply by refocusing the debate in 08 and getting even a small percentage of the electorate, could be just what the whole system needs. So I'm officially throwing one third of the YTE vote (not valid in all 50 states) in their direction. At least until they turn out to be embezzling their campaign money.


Those were the good ole days

So I was looking back at an interview with Bill Clinton, given by Amy Goodman on her program “Democracy Now.” The Q+A session, which took place on Election Day 2000, was supposed to be a quick get out the vote promo piece by Clinton. Goodman managed to extend the session and elicit pointed commentary from the acting President through doing her best to bring up controversial rabble rousing liberal issues, including whether the U.S. was responsible for starving Iraqi children due to the UN embargo of Sadaam Hussein, why Clinton hadn’t enforced a moratorium on the death penalty, and the Israeli “occupation,” of Palestinian territories. Clinton, who no doubt had many scheduled appearances on the day, was overcome by his desire to defend his administration and his own debating instincts, and actually did a pretty good job responding to Goodman’s queries.

From the perspective of 2006, it’s difficult to sympathize with Goodman’s whinging about what was wrong with the U.S. As Clinton said at the time, the major problem for the Left was that “the country is in great shape,” and forced to focus on secondary issues of morality that were not going the Left’s way. Six years later the budget deficit is out of control, both inflation AND unemployment are higher, (impressive!) more Americans have no healthcare, we have made no progress in solving the major long-term issues of this decade (environmental destruction and the social security crunch,) we are involved in a three year long war with no end in sight, and our relations with many of our allies are frostier than before.

But I can’t say “I told you so,” because in 2000, I was more in agreement with Goodman’s point of view than Clinton’s. I voted for Ralph Nader in the 2000 election. Now granted, I was voting in Massachusetts, where the chances of Gore losing were a solid zero percent. Had I been voting in a state that was a little closer, say Missouri, I don’t know whether or not my vote would have been different.

Why did I do such a thing? Because I was not that excited about the prospect of an Al Gore presidency. Because I thought that too often, he and Clinton caved to the right. More importantly, I voted for Nader because I was, and still am, sick of the monopoly that the Democratic and Republican parties hold on our country’s government. Both parties foster elitism by concentrating power in the hands of a few factions at the national level (through committee chairs, etc.), and through shaping the political system to insure entrenchment of elected representatives. Both are giant monoliths that have to attempt to facilitate the interests of too many groups of people. This leads to several negative outcomes in our political process, including influence being concentrated in rich corporations, a ridiculous amount of paternalism (sons succeeding fathers in districts…or as President… incumbents winning every time,) and huge barriers to entry for new parties.

These problems still exist today, and I don’t blame myself for throwing my vote away as a sign of protest. On the other hand, I overlooked a few of the positive outcomes of our system. The first is that the government of the 90s was doing a pretty good job, as the Republican Congress battled centrist Clinton to produce decent legislation and economic stability. The second was that, despite my unwavering belief in many liberal positions on secondary social issues like abortion and the death penalty, in 2006, there is a large part of the population of the United States that doesn’t agree with me. Why don’t they? I wonder. Today for example, I am watching Messrs. Brownback and Coryn passionately defend the constitutional amendment attempting to “protect,” heterosexual marriage through altering the living document that is supposed to govern the structure of our society. Is two men or two women getting married such a big deal for their constituencies that they have to force their viewpoints onto all of us through the one document that is supposed to speak for us all? What is their ultimate goal; do these people believe that they can snuff out homosexuality by curtailing freedoms and treating homosexuals as second-class citizens? Why can’t the Right just accept that many people in America do not care about the “sanctity” of marriage, many people want people to have this freedom, and many people want to get married to their loved ones?

Of course, this works both ways. For example, I think the death penalty is morally wrong, even without considering issues such as wrongful executions or discrimination in regards to Death Row cases. Most Americans disagree with me however; and therefore the death penalty continues to be part of our legal practices in most of our states. No universal consensus has been reached throughout the United States on these socio-cultural issues. In the end, at this time we are probably better off as a society allowing people to make up their own minds. But both parties have core constituencies who take the election of their party as a sign (Biblical or otherwise) of a universal resolution on these issues. Consequently, both parties want their elected representatives, who they zealously work for, to put these issues into law.

For the American political system to remain effective, it must thrive on the arrogance of both constituencies leading to their downfall. In the case of leftists like Goodman, challenging the Clinton Administration for not doing enough was particularly short-sighted considering the Republicans controlled both houses of Congress. Goodman and the left should realize that they are going to have to convince a whole bunch load more people that they are on the right side of issues like the death penalty, abortion, and the environment if they are going to build a consensus to pass the legislation they desire. We simply aren’t there yet as a country. And sitting in New York broadcasting to the people who are already on your side doesn’t seem to be the best solution.

Likewise, I hope that the Right’s attempts to constitutionally ban gay marriage as well as their semi-racist stance on immigration scares centrists into supporting the Democrats. The general incompetence of the Republican leadership should help.
What this illustrates however, is how quickly we lose sight of what our government should be doing, getting things done and passing legislation that insures the continued success of our country. I think that these issues are really very simple: the the finances of government, relations with other countries, maintenance of our population through investment in infrastructure, assistance programs for the less fortunate, healthcare, education, and the environment. Time spent on constitutional amendments around flag-burning and gay marriage is a waste.

So in 2006, when the Democrats are up for election, I will vote for them, recognizing that while they will not be fulfilling my leftist utopian fantasies, that it’s important to have them in power during the ten percent of time that our government actually works on issues that will effect our country for years to come, such as Immigration reform. The Republicans have had power for too long and we need to force Bush into learning how to compromise. Of course, you can’t teach an old dog new tricks: we could set a record for fewest bills signed into law if the Democrats win the house. But while I pretend to give token support to the monolith, I will hope that some day a legitimate third party rises, liberated from entrenched factions who with to impose their morality who only want to focus on issues. Who wants to wait with me?

Friday, June 02, 2006


Don't Fear the Robots

Over the last week, I have been thinking about robots and what the future holds for humanity as technology progresses. My thoughts were spawned both by a conversation with Stuart Lim and Mistah Broyles, as well as wikipedia deciding to feature an article on Transhumanism. Transhumanism is a philosophical/scientific movement dedicated to preparing for and enabling future technologies such as cybernetics, robotics, and genetic engineering. With such technologies progressing over the next century, transhumanists believe that we will eventually transition out of current “humanity,” by transcending the principles of natural evolution. New technologies will enable us to learn faster, control disease, prolong life and end much of the suffering that is part of the human condition. On the other hand, we will no longer be Homo Sapiens Sapiens as we currently perceive ourselves since cyborgization would/could fundamentally change our “genetic” makeup.

Of course genetics as we know it kind of goes out the window once you remove the current process of determination of genetic makeup which has been guiding our evolution for the last three billion years. Likewise many other issues that are fundamentally part of human nature and human society will undoubtedly affect the way in which these new technological developments are integrated into the current or future human populations.

One issue is social and economic stratification throughout the world. Optimistic transhumanists and optimistic futurists in general argue that technological evolution will eventually solve the scarcity problem in the world economy. The scarcity problem is simply that there is not enough food/money to go around in the world, which is why we have the market economy (to allocate these resources in as effective a manner as possible and promote the greatest total wealth,) and also why we have poverty, famines, and all those good externalities of capitalism. The problem is that the technological innovation that would lead to the end of the scarcity problem will necessarily occur in a society with a scarcity problem. Therefore, we can assume that the technological innovations like cybernetics or gene manipulation will necessarily be available to the wealthy and powerful before they are available to anyone else.

We will then be relying on the creators of such technology and those with enough capital to get their hands on it, to benignly share it with everyone else. Fat fucking chance. That is not what human beings do, unfortunately, since we are greedy assholes.

We are already have seen glimpses of how humanity and those with capital control deal with the issue of new technologies. One example of technological innovation that could effectively be disseminated to whoever wants it is digital technology (say digital music,) which now can be effectively replicated at minimal cost. Of course, music companies do not allow this under the guise of intellectual property, prosecuting people who attempt to take advantage of the low cost of replication, even though the concept of intellectual property law was basically invented by the courts and publishing companies within the last century. Likewise, should someone invent a method or reproducing infinite amounts of rice, or an effective AIDS vaccine, there will be a battle between the humanitarian instincts of some and the profit-minded instincts of others, as to whether to share this technology or not. As this debate is resolved in society over time, millions of people whose lives could have been saved will not be. It’s just the way it works.

But let’s get back to robots. Stuart was all for the transcendence of the human race into some sort of superior Cylonish being. And if we can replicate Tricia Helfer, I can’t really argue with the logic. During our discussion, I repeatedly reminded Stu, in my best T-800 imitation, of the following quote: “Skynet becomes self-aware,” referencing Terminator 2, where a computer responsible for United States missle defense, starts a nuclear holocaust, leading to a nightmarish machine run society involving the enslavement of remaining humanity. Sci-Fi/horror depictions of artificial intelligence (my three favorite are Battlestar Galactica, The Terminator, and The Animatrix,) tend to involve cybernetic “liberations.” In all three cases, robots are created by humans to be subservient to human needs. We view them like we view the lever or the wheel, as tools created to make our lives easier. At some point, the machines attain “self-awareness,” or “consciousness,” some sort of mental capacity that makes them on par with humans in the same manner that humans are different from the rest of the animal kingdom. The combination of the machines superior creative and reproductive faculties and human arrogance about 1) assuming our position as dominant organism within our planet and 2) assuming the “special,” nature of our humanity as opposed to their “machineness,” which is generally tied to our emotional capabilities and sense of self, both give us some sort of inherent advantage over our machine-children, inevitably prove to be our downfall. We are unable to cope with the rise of beings superior to ourselves, and viewing them as threats, we try to destroy them. Of course, by then it’s too late.

But this view of robots as a separate “race,” in the future may not prove to be correct; instead it is the synthesizing of humans and technology that probably will prove to be where the future takes us. That, at least, appears to be the direction the transhumanists are pushing us towards. In this way then, human emotions will be kept intact, (we assume,) and there won’t be the dichotomy between humans and machines that leads to the apocalyptic scenarios of science fiction.

That is not to say there won’t be other strange scenarios that haven’t been thought of or that I have not been exposed to. Here is a fun one: what if 40 years from now, Bill Gates decides to put billions of dollars into prolonging his own life as a cybernetic being, replacing his heart with something artificial, and implanting a chip into his brain that replenishes his degrading mental capabilities, giving him reinvigorated learning capacities and superior data storage to the human brain. These operations and others increase his life expectancy by an extra 40 years. Well we say, on the one hand it’s his hard earned money, and he should be able to spend it how he wants. And 40 extra years of Bill Gates means 40 extra years of him being able to help undeveloped countries become technologically advanced (with computers that run Windows, of course,) as the greatest philanthropist the world has ever known.

But 80 years from now, Bill Gates, with his superior knowledge and learning capabilities, has invested his hard earned money in newer technologies that enable himself to extend his life for another 80 years. Hmmmm. All some point in time, Bill Gates ceases to be a human, where he transcends natural mortality. But it is only through his billions of dollars that he is able to attain this transhuman state.

Is this how it will happen, that the rich and the haves, the tech-geeks and eccentrics, will be able to transcend humanity first, before the rest of us get a chance to experience the benefits cybernetic technology? Or get clean drinking water and earn more than a dollar a day?

And if we can predict this is going to happen, should I be for it (as I guess it represents progress and there is no doubt suffering that can eventually be alleviated by these technologies) or should I try to prevent it from happening? Or should I be working to be first in line to get that chip implanted in my brain? (duh!)

This reality is probably a long way off, and we have many other things to worry about in the meantime, like will we get there in the first place. There are the small matters of nuclear weapons, and plagues, and asteroids, and global warming that could derail the progress of humanity. There is the much larger matter that the human race collectively is no where near prepared to consider and debate these questions on an intellectual or moral level. How many more people are concerned with the Biblical Apocalypse as opposed to the Robotic Apocalypse (at least the Presidents of Iran and the U.S., and they have nuclear launch codes.) We have come to no general consensus on the interaction of science and life, or a global definition of life or humanity. We are still divided by abstract human creations such as nation, religion, and tribe, that cause us to kill, rob and rape each other.

Do I see us solving these issues before cybernetic technology makes it into humanity, before the transhumanists get the chance to live out their dream? Probably not. So the vast majority of humanity will be derailed by our petty arguments and our flaws from the utopia new technologies bring forth. Clearly, I must do what I can to make sure I am in that small minority that benefits.

One thing troubles me though. As a human, I share one thing with all of my fellow man: I will die. Death is one of our only truths, and it’s this fact that is the cause of much of the conflict and greed in our world, I do believe. And I just don’t know whether it’s a good idea for us to work on transcending that fact, as well as our humanity, before we’ve collectively solved the other problems of the reality of humanity. But I don’t think we’ll have that choice.

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