Wertheim on extropians

Damien Broderick (d.broderick@english.unimelb.edu.au)
Fri, 17 Sep 1999 12:24:36 +0000

An Aussie pal writes:

Did you see [Margaret] Wertheim's article in the [Melbourne] Sunday Age attacking the
extropians, and Max More in particular? It contains the usual Wertheim blunders such as suggesting that More claims that our "transhumanist" (I assume she means transhuman or post-human or something) "ancestors" (I imagine she means descendants) will look back on us with scorn etc. She has a bizarre theory of libertarianism whereby a libertarian should support the right to have the choice of living in a society without extended longevity being available. Huh? So a *libertarian* supports freedom to stop
*everyone else* in the society from having access to such technology. Yeah,

More tricky ... is her claim that if we double the human life span it will double the peak size of the global population. This strikes me as an obvious non sequitur, but I'd like some clever mathematics to prove it.


So far I haven't read the piece and can't find it on-line, so it's off to the library for me. Meanwhile, I replied to my buddy (and would welcome some salient thoughts from you lot):

Re population bloat: Something I never quite managed to get a clear fix on, despite several goes-round with people on the net more numerate than I. Presumably the ultimate reply would be, `So what? Julian Simon has shown that working smart more than doubles usable resources - and anyway, nanotech will give us access to asteroids, etc'. But it is a worry, of a sort.

I've belatedly caught up with Mark Dery's ESCAPE VELOCITY, from 1996, which must have been just out when THE SPIKE was with the printers. He doesn't quote Wertheim anywhere,. but it's that sort of thing, on `cyberculture' - except that he's read a lot more of the relevant docs, Mondo 2000, Haraway, all that. He takes a snooty crypto-Marxist attitude to the extropes, Vinge and Moravec in the final chapter. But it all hangs on a mind-numbing silliness, caught in his closing bid:

`Still, a shadow of a doubt remains, nagging at the edge of awareness - the doubt that once our bodies have been "de-animated", our gray matter nibbled away by infinitesimal nanomachines and encoded in computer memory, we might awaken to discover that an ineffable something had gotten lost in translation. In that moment, we might face ourselves thinking of Gabe, in
*Synners*, who unexpectedly finds himself face-to-face with his worst fear
while roaming disembodied through cyberspace:

` *I can't remember what it feels like to have a body.... He wanted to scream in frustration, but he had nothing to scream with.'

[leaving aside Cadigan's steal from Harlan]

This captures a whole bundle of typical moves. Hang yr `argument' on a selective quote from a piece of fiction, as if that proves anything more than that authors are good at catching the conscious and unconscious fears and prejudices of their audience, portray uploaded life in cyberspace as
*phenomenologically disembodied* which it surely would only be if done by a
cretin with no understanding of the sensory basis of cognition etc, ground
yr qualms in an `ineffable something' with no basis beyond crude animism. As in the bigoted claim: when we speak to women, Jews and blacks, likewise, we white sons of Christ cannot treat them as human, since we have that nagging suspicion that they lack the `ineffable something' which would make them true humans, etc. The mind boggles. Yet this is how Dery closes his book; this is what he takes to be his strongest wrap-up. Urp.

Damien Broderick