Re: Hakim Bey (was: RE: virtual nation building)

From: Anders Sandberg (
Date: Tue Feb 26 2002 - 06:06:44 MST

On Tue, Feb 26, 2002 at 12:43:29PM +0100, Amara Graps wrote:
> Primitives and Extropians

Indeed, this is a very interesting text and well worth reading and
thinking about. Hakim Bey is more concerned with the issue of
how the primitivists and extropians would impact on his own project of
autonomous zones than whether their philosophies are "right". But his
critique of extropianism is still relevant:

> Obviously for the Extropians, mediation per se cannot be
> defined as "impurity" or as the invariable source of separation,
> alienation, and hierarchy. Nevertheless, it remains obvious that such
> separation does in fact occur

Translated, this would mean that extropians do not see technological
mediation - our technological exoselves that interface us with the world
and each other through telecommunications, cars, prepackaged food and
glasses - as an inevitable source of separation from the real world and
each other. This is contrary to what primitivists, romantics, luddites,
marxists and many other critics of modernity claim.

I think at the core this is due to a different sense of the meaning and
importance of authenticity: to us authentic means something entirely
different from the very much nature-linked sense the term is used by
them. I think most of us would say that a life as a posthuman upload in
a nanotech Dyson sphere is just as authentic as living as a hunter
gatherer in the paleolithic; it is more about a subjective sense of
identity than anything rooted in physical or metaphysical reality. To
us, the mood change brought about by Prozac is just as authentic as the
same change brought about by therapy (we can still recognize that a
cognitive therapy making a person better able to cope and control his
emotions will in the long run be preferrable to a "chemical fix", it is
just that the mood itself has its own authenticity). In the end I think
our position can be viewed as "authenticity is information", while many
of our critics think that "authenticity is in the object".

However, authenticity is also - especially in marxist and existentialist
discourse - closely linked to social aspects. This is what Bey continues

> that it amounts to immiseration, that it
> is bound up in some way with techn? and mediation, that not all
> technology is "liberating" according to any anarchist definition of the
> term, and that some of it is downright oppressive. The Extropian
> therefore lacks and needs a critique of technology, and of the
> incredibly complex relation between the social and the technical. No
> one with any intelligence can any longer accept the notion of
> technology as "morally neutral," with control of the means of
> production the only criteria for valuation. The social and the
> technological are somehow bound in a complex relation of co-creation
> (or "co-evolution"), such that techn? shapes cognition even as
> cognition shapes techn?.

Bey means roughly that technology (and he means it in its widest sense,
not just special devices but also "technologies" such as economics and
psychology) is not value-neutral, but that some technology has inherent
consequences that are ethically relevant. In his analysis this is not
due to anything directly inherent in the technology itself, but rather
in the fact that it is impossible to separate technology from the social
environment - economy, culture, politics and all that. Technology is
developed because of what humans think and want, and these things are
bound up to our society; the new technology changes society, and we get
a complex tangle of feedback where everything does have ethical

I agree with him about this. Seeing technology as something cleanly
separated from society, something that develops on its own according to
its own rules, does not work - the history of technology shows that it
is always deeply involved in the messy process of cultural change. This
is not anything deterministic, and individual humans can and do affect
it a lot, which means it has ethical implications.

Unfortunately quite a few transhumanists do tend towards fairly
simplistic technological determinism or separate technology from its
cultural side, and this produces an inability to do a good critique of
technology. If technology is just something bringing us towards a future
utopia on its own, then technology is simply good and there is no point
in further debate about whether Microsoft's software is a good thing. If
the value of technology is determined solely by the values of those
bringing it into existence and the applications it is put to, then it is
impossible to criticise secondary effects (is it a good thing that we
can be constantly reached using cellphones, and a culture assuming this
seems to be emerging?).

> If the extropian vision of the future is
> viable it cannot depend on "machine evolution" alone to achieve
> realization. But unless anarcho-futurism can develop a critique of
> technology, it is relegated precisely to this passive role.

Which I also agree with. We will not get to transhumanity just by
inventing the right tools, we have to change ourselves and our
culture too.

> On the other hand, I prefer the burden of inconsistency (even "foolish"
> inconsistency) to the burden of the Absolute. Only an impure theory can
> do justice to the impurity of the present -which, as everyone knows, is
> only a psychological impossibility caught between a lost past and a
> nonexistent future.

I.e., beware of oversimplified utopias where everything is black and
white. Such thinking requires you to do away with all of the present
world and to remake it into something completely different. It has a
hard time being tolerant and pluralistic, and can very easily turn into
something totalitarian.

It is better to start out with the current messy situation and look at
how it could get to a better - but still messy - situation. Sometimes
oversimplifactions and gedankenexperiments can help us think, but they
should be recognized as the crutches they are.

> Suppose we were to ask -as anarchists- what should be done about the
> problem of technology "after the revolution." This exercise in utopian
> poetics may help us to clarify the question of desire, and of praxis in
> the "present." The primitivist might argue that there can be no
> revolution without the abolition of symbolic mediation, or at least of
> the technological imperative; extropians might say that no revolution
> can occur without technological transcendence. But both parties must
> perforce admit a transitional stage, when de facto power has been
> seized by the "Revolution," but the full unfolding of revolutionary
> society has yet to occur. Let's imagine that the one rough principle
> agreed upon by "everyone" is the freedom of the individual from
> coercion by the group, and the freedom of the (self-organized) group
> from coercion by all other groups. The only "price" of this freedom is
> that it damage no other free and autonomous interests.
> I suspect that this "utopia" would
> prove disappointing to both the primitives and the extropians. I
> suspect that a workable utopia would adhere more closely to the "messy"
> model than to either of the "pure" models of the pro-tech/anti-tech
> theorists. Like bolo'bolo, I imagine a complex multiplicity of social
> models co-existing under the voluntary aegis of the social "price" of
> mutual non-coercion. In effect the primitivists will get less
> wilderness than they demand, and the extropians will get less tech.

This is a very good thought experiment (and as such, a crutch for
thinking rather than a recipe of How To Do It). His point is that if we
somehow manage to overturn the current situation and create essentially
an anarchist world (his description seems a bit like my ideas about
metafederations and Nozick's utopia, a world composed of communities
with their own internal rules and much freedom to move between them) the
world will not become a primitive utopia or a posthuman utopia. It would
likely be a messy mixture of both - there would be extropians pursuing
supertech, and right next to them the local luddites trying to live a
neomedieval life. But neither would get the pure world: the luddites
would find themselves using some neat tech or having to accept the
existence of GM plants, the extropians would have to accept both a large
number of people not interested in their visions and a slower rate of
progress than would have been if everybody had been trying to storm the

Bey seem to be optimistic about that this is feasible, and this may be
his own utopian flight of fancy. After all, getting from here to there
will not be a clean break if it happens, but in itself a messy imperfect
process. It could very well be that we still will have some of our old
insitutions even after the Revolution - there might be a Microsoft even
then - and it will likely not be as perfectly anarchist or nice as we
would like. Which is acceptable, because the alternative is to seek a
perfect revolution which is impossible to realize in the real world.

Anders Sandberg                                      Towards Ascension!                  
GCS/M/S/O d++ -p+ c++++ !l u+ e++ m++ s+/+ n--- h+/* f+ g+ w++ t+ r+ !y

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