Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Transhumans and Cishumans

Image via transumanity.net.

It's transhuman activist David F. Brooks with a new opus in his beloved there-are-two-kinds-of-people genre, "Upswingers and Downswingers", which looks on its face as if it might be drawing its inspiration from boxing, or maybe wife-swapping—Upswingers are couples who like to swap with couples of higher social status, while Downswingers descend to their inferiors, and in politics it's sort of similar:

Both right and left are dividing into upswinger and downswinger camps. Among Republicans the upswingers embrace capitalist dynamism, global engagement and the open movement of people and ideas. The downswingers embrace ethnic and national cohesion and closed borders.
On the left it’s between those who believe the only realistic path is to reform existing structures and those who think they are so broken we need to start over.
But no, it turns out that it's based on a kind of typo inside Brooks's memory, projected onto the science fiction writer and futurology professor born as F.M. Esfandiary (1930-2000), and his 1973 Up-Wingers: A Futurist Manifesto, which
"... emanates a kind of ultimate optimism--the triumph over alienation and irrationality." He deals in possibilities; he makes the unknown his favorite subject and with Upwingers, he makes the future a revolutionary rendezvous
Or maybe not a typo; he doesn't mention up-wingers and down-wingers anywhere in the column, but explains in parentheses that "I'm adapting the words" ("upswinger" and "downswinger" he does use, suggesting that he consciously altered them, "from a deceased Iranian-American futurist who called himself FM-2030," which is the name Esfandiary took when he began transitioning to transhuman (that is or was apparently really a thing, and Francis Fukuyama thought it sounded pretty scary) in the mid-1970s. But I'm betting it began as an error and he just typed that in when the intern found he was remembering it wrong. Or he himself found out, because there are no hyperlinks in today's column, to FM-2030 or anybody else, a sign that the intern had the day off.

He also appeals to Ruth DeFries, described by Wikipedia as
an environmental geographer who specializes in the use of remote sensing to study Earth's habitability under the influence of human activities, such as deforestation, that influence regulating biophysical and biogeochemical processes.
which sounds something like the way David Brooks observes humanity from his transhuman standpoint—remote sensing—only of course DeFries uses sophisticated instruments at her lab at Columbia and Brooks just uses his intuition. ("I'm sure there are humans out there, maybe on that cute blue planet.")

DeFries is responsible for a cool model of the evolution of human ecology, the concept of "hatchets, ratchets, and pivots" as delineated in her 2014 book The Big Ratchet: How Humanity Thrives in the Face of Natural Crisis and described by an Earth Institute intern at the time, Rachael Lubitz:
Every time a problem (a hatchet) in food production arose, a pivot was developed as a solution. For example, when cities became too large to move all the human waste to the countryside, farmers discovered guano, bird droppings that could be found in large quantities. As guano began to diminish in supply, countries fought wars to keep hold of it. Yet again, society soon found a way to pivot, finding a new resource to help keep food production high. The answer this time was found in synthesized fertilizer: Nitrogen gas could be taken from the air and turned into nourishment for crops. This solution was revolutionary; civilizations no longer had to be tethered to organic fertilizer supplies, but could craft them from chemical sources. Yet as we had come to expect throughout her talk, this ratchet was ultimately followed by a hatchet. The production of synthesized fertilizer led to the need for pesticides like DDT, which were later found to be toxic....
Which naturally makes Brooks a little uncomfortable, with all that material culture (Guano! Yuck!). So he transhumanizes it, in a process like a sort of intellectual koshering, to make sure all the blood has drained out before we consume it:

Every era develops the culture it needs to solve its problems. During the mid-20th century the West developed a group-oriented culture to deal with the Great Depression and the World Wars. Its motto could have been “We’re in this together.” That became too conformist and stultifying. A new individualistic culture emerged (pivot) whose motto could have been “I’m free to be myself.” That was great for a time, but excessive individualism has left society too fragmented, isolated and divided (hatchet). Something new is needed.
The fact that he uses "pivot" in the fifth sentence there where he should have used "ratchet" is another sign that he really isn't paying attention to himself, and it's getting really tiresome to be constantly paying more attention than he is.

The idea of cultural change as a kind of perpetual sauna routine in which everybody keeps marching from the steamroom of collectivism to the cold bath of individualism and back is so flabby compared to the evolutionary concepts Brooks would like to be emulating that criticizing it is like trying to beat up a cooked sea cucumber.

The recycling of the ancient optimist vs. pessimist dichotomy into "upswingers" and "downswingers" is not very helpful either, and bothsidering it into the service of showing that Democrats and Republicans are really the same isn't an improvement. I wouldn't mind going a little further with the idea of David F. Brooks as a transhuman—his new transhuman name could be DF-1790, for the year the Reflections on the Late Revolution in France were published. But on the whole I think I've had all the fun I'm going to have with this column already. 

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