Wednesday


Eighth in a Series on Existential Risk:

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Every Risk is also an Opportunity


It is a commonplace that every risk is an opportunity, and every opportunity is a risk; risk and opportunity are two sides of the same coin. This can also be expressed by distinguishing negative risk (what we ordinarily call “risk” simpliciter) and positive risk (what we ordinarily call “opportunity”). What this means in terms of existential thought is that every existential risk is an existential opportunity, and existential opportunity is at the same time an existential risk.

If we understand by risk the uncertainty of frequency and uncertainty of magnitude of future loss, then by opportunity we should understand the uncertainty of frequency and uncertainty of magnitude of future gain. The relative probability of a loss is offset by the relative probability of a gain, and the relative probability of a gain is offset by the relative probability of a loss; both are calculable; both are, in principle, insurable. Thus these risks and opportunities represent the subset of uncertainties that present actionable mitigation strategies. Where uncertainty exceeds the possibility of actionable mitigation, we pass beyond insurable risk to uncertainty proper.

In existential risk scenarios, our very existence is at stake; in existential opportunity scenarios, again, our very existence is at stake. To formulate this parallel to the above, we can assert that existential risk is the uncertainty of frequency and uncertainty of magnitude of future loss of earth-originating life and civilization, while existential opportunity is the uncertainty of frequency and uncertainty of magnitude of future gain for earth-originating life and civilization. In formulating the existential condition of humanity, there is little that is risk sensu stricto, since much of the big picture of the human future is given over to uncertainty that lies beyond presently actionable risk. However, the calculus of risk and reward remains, even if we are not speaking strictly of risk that can be fully calculated and thus fully insured. In other words, the existential uncertainties facing humanity admit of a distinction between positive uncertainties and negative uncertainties. Any valuation of this kind, however, is intrinsically disputable and controversial.

Given that our very existence is at stake in existential opportunity no less than in existential risk, a future defined by the realization of an existential opportunity might be unrecognizable as a human future. Indeed, the realization of an existential opportunity might be every bit as unrecognizable as the realization of an existential threat, which means that the two futures might be indistinguishable, which means in turn that existential opportunity might be mistaken for existential risk, and vice versa.

Faced with a stark choice (i.e., faced with an existential choice), I think few would choose extinction, flawed realization, permanent stagnation, or subsequent ruination over species survival, flawless realization, permanent amelioration, or subsequent escalation. (If, in moments of decision in our life, we make our choice in fear and trembling, how must we fear and tremble in moments of decision for our species?) Any such choice, however, is not likely to be visited upon us in this form.

Much more likely that an explicit choice between an utopian future of astonishing wonders and a dystopian future of dismal oppression is an imperceptibly gradual process whereby a promising future suggests certain day-to-day decisions (seemingly seizing an opportunity) which lead incrementally to a future with unintended consequences that greatly outweigh the promises that prompted the daily decisions that led to the future in question. This is how history generally works: by degrees, and not by intention. (Notwithstanding the Will Durant quote — “The future never just happened, it was created.” — that I mentioned in Predicting the Human Future in Space.)

In so far as industrial-technological civilization continues its exponential growth of technology (growing incrementally and often imperceptibly by degrees, and not always by intention), and therefore also the growth of human agency in shaping our environment, the expanding scope of this civilization will mitigate certain existential risks even as it exposes humanity to new and unprecedented risks. That is to say, industrial-technological civilization itself is at once both a risk and an opportunity. Civilization centered on escalating industrial-technological development exposes us to escalating industrial accidents and unintended consequences of technology, unprecedented pollution from industrial processes, changes in our way of life, and indeed changes to our very being as a result of the technological transformation of humanity (i.e., transhumanism).

At the same time, escalating industrial-technological development offers the unprecedented possibility of a spacefaring civilization, which could establish earth-originating life off the surface of the earth and thereby secure the minimum redundancy necessary to the long-term survival of such life. The transition of the terrestrial economy to an economy fully integrated with the industrialization of space — a process that I have called extraterrestrialization — could not take place without the advent of industrial-technological civilization.

Yet the expansion of business operations and interests into extraterrestrial space is a paradigm of uncertainty — no such effort has been made on a large scale, and so the risks of such an enterprise are unknown and cannot be calculated, fully managed, or insured against. Space operations therefore exemplify uncertainty rather than risk, and for the same reason that such operations are uncertain, their execution is potentially beset with contingencies unknown to us today. This does not make such an enterprise is too risky to contemplate — this is the only imaginable contribution that industrial-technological civilization can make to the long-term survival of earth-originating life — but we must undertake such enterprises without illusions or the subsequent losses endured may become socially unsustainable leading to the end of the enterprise. Subsequent unforeseen losses resulting from the transition to a spacefaring civilization may even be interpreted as a form of subsequent ruination, and thereby conceived by many as an existential threat. How we understand existential risk, then, affects what we understand to be a risk and what we understand to be a reward.

In the larger context of industrial-technological civilization we can identify individual industries and technologies that represent in themselves both risks and opportunities. The most fantastic speculations of transhumanist utopias, like the most dismal speculations on transhumanist dystopias, constitute unprecedented opportunities (or risks) implied by the present trajectories of technology. One of the best examples of risk and opportunity in future technology are the possibilities of nano-scale robots. The development of nano-scale robots could, on the one hand, provide for unprecedented medical technologies — robots that could be injected like an inoculation which would treat medical conditions from the inside out, repairing the body on a microscopic scale and potentially greatly improving health and extending longevity. On the other hand, nano-scale robots loose in the biosphere could potentially cause great harm. if not havoc, perhaps even resulting in a gray goo scenario.

In so far as any proposed existential risk mitigation initiatives prioritize safety over opportunity, any concern for existential risk could itself become an existential risk by lending support for policies that address risk through calculated stagnation instituted as a risk-averse response to existential threats. The question then becomes how humanity can lower its exposure to existential risks without reducing its existential opportunities. The attempt to answer this question, even if it does not issue in clear, unambiguous imperatives, may at least provide a framework in which to conceptualize problematic scenarios for the human future that some may identify as desirable while others would identify the same as a moral horror — such as transhumanism.

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danger imminent existential threat

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Existential Risk: The Philosophy of Human Survival

1. Moral Imperatives Posed by Existential Risk

2. Existential Risk and Existential Uncertainty

3. Addendum on Existential Risk and Existential Uncertainty

4. Existential Risk and the Death Event

5. Risk and Knowledge

6. What is an existential philosophy?

7. An Alternative Formulation of Existential Risk

8. Existential Risk and Existential Opportunity

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Grand Strategy Annex

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The Preemption Hypothesis

20 October 2012

Saturday


Three Little Words: “Where are they?”

In The Visibility Presumption I examined some issues in relation to the response to the Fermi paradox by those who claim that a technological singularity would likely overtake any technologically advanced civilization. I don’t see how the technological singularity visited upon an alien species makes them any less visible (in the sense of “visible” relevant to SETI) nor any less likely to be interested in exploration, adventure, or the quest for scientific knowledge — and finding us would constitute a major scientific discovery for some xenobiological species that had matured into a peer industrial-technological civilization.

The more I think about the Fermi paradox — and I have been thinking a lot about it lately — and the more I contextualize the Fermi paradox in my own emerging theory of civilization — which is a theory I am attempting to formulate in the purest tradition of Russellian generality so that it is equally applicable to human civilization and to any non-human civilization — the more I have come to think that our civilization is relatively isolated in the cosmos, being perhaps one of the few civilizations, or the only civilization, in the Milky Way, and one among only a handful of civilizations in the local cluster of galaxies or our supercluster.

Having an opinion on the Fermi paradox, and even making an attempt to argue for a particular position, does not however relieve one of the intellectual responsibility of exploring all aspects of the paradox. I have also come to think, while reflecting on the Fermi paradox, that the paradox itself has been fruitful in pushing those who care to think about it toward better formulations of the nature and consequences of industrial-technological civilization and of interstellar civilization — whether that of a supposed xenocivilization, or that of ourselves now and in the future.

The human experience of economic and technological growth in the wake of the industrial revolution has made us aware that if there are other peer species in the universe, and if these peer species undergo a process of the development of civilization anything like our own, then these peer species may also have experienced or will experience the escalating exponential growth of economic organization and technological complexity that we have experienced. Looking at our own civilization, again, it seems that the natural telos of continued economic and technological development — for we see no natural or obvious impediment to such continued development — is for human civilization to extend itself beyond the confines of the Earth and the establish itself throughout the solar system and eventually throughout the galaxy and beyond. This natural teleology has been called “The Expansion Hypothesis” by John M. Smart. Smart credits the expansion hypothesis to Kardashev, and while it is implicit in Kardashev, Kardashev himself does not formulate the idea explicitly and does not use the term “expansion hypothesis.”

Aristotle as depicted by Raphael in the Vatican stanze.

Aristotle as depicted by Raphael in the Vatican stanze.

The natural teleology of civilization

I have taken the term “natural teleology” from contemporary philosophical expositions of Aristotle’s distinction between final causes and efficient causes. We can get something of a flavor of Aristotle’s idea of natural teleology (without going too deep into the controversy over final causes) from this paragraph from the second book of Aristotle’s Physics:

We also speak of a thing’s nature as being exhibited in the process of growth by which its nature is attained. The ‘nature’ in this sense is not like ‘doctoring’, which leads not to the art of doctoring but to health. Doctoring must start from the art, not lead to it. But it is not in this way that nature (in the one sense) is related to nature (in the other). What grows qua growing grows from something into something. Into what then does it grow? Not into that from which it arose but into that to which it tends. The shape then is nature.

Aristotle is a systematic philosopher, in which any one doctrine is related to many other doctrines, so that an excerpt really doesn’t do him justice; if the reader cares to, he or she can can look into this more deeply by reading Aristotle and his commentators. But I must say this much in elaboration: the idea of natural teleology is problematic because it suggests a teleological conception of the whole of nature and all of its parts, and ever since Darwin we have understood that many claims to natural teleology are simply the expression of anthropic bias.

Still, kittens grow into cats and puppies grow into dogs (if they live to maturity), and it is pointless to deny this. What is important here is to tightly circumscribe the idea of natural teleology so that we don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater. The difficulty comes in distinguishing the baby from the bathwater in which the baby is immersed. Unless we want to end up with the idea of a natural teleology for human beings and the lives they live — this was the “human nature” that Sartre emphatically denied — we must deny final causes to agents, or find some other principle of distinction.

Are civilizations a natural kind for which we can posit a natural teleology, i.e., a form or a nature toward which they naturally tend as they grow and develop? My answer to this is ambiguous, but it is a principled ambiguity: yes and no. Yes, because some aspects of civilization are clearly developmental, when an institution is growing toward its fulfillment, while other aspects of civilization are clearly non-developmental and discontinuous. But civilization is so complex a whole that there is no simple way to separate the developmental and the non-developmental aspects of any one given civilization.

When we examine high points of civilization like Athens under Pericles or Florence during the Renaissance, we can recognize after the fact the slow build up to these cultural heights, which cannot clearly be distinguished from economic, civil, urban, and military development. The natural teleology of a civilization is the attainment of excellence in its particular mode of being, just as Aristotle said that the great-souled man aims at excellence in his life, but the path to that excellence is as varied as the different lives of individuals and the difference histories of civilizations (Sam Harris might call them distinct peaks on the moral landscape).

Now, I don’t regard this brief exposition of the natural teleology of civilization as anything like a definitive formulation, but a definitive formulation of something so complex and subtle would require years of work. I will save this for another time, rather, counting on the reader’s charity (if not indulgence) to grant me the idea that at least in some respects civilizations tend toward fulfilling an apparent telos implicit in its developmental history.

Early industrialization often had an incongruous if not surreal character, as in this painting of traditional houses silhouetted again the Madeley Wood Furnaces at Coalbrookdale; the incongruity and surrealism is a function of historical preemption.

The Preemption Hypothesis

What I am going to suggest here as another response to the Fermi paradox will sound to some like just another version of the technological singularity response, but I want to try to show that what I am suggesting is a more general conception than that — a potential structural failure of civilization, as it were — and as a more comprehensive concept the technological singularity response to the Fermi paradox can be subsumed under it as a particular instance of civilizational preemption.

The more general conception of a response to the silentium universi I call the preemption hypothesis. According to the preemption hypothesis, the ordinary course of development of industrial-technological civilization — which, if extrapolated, would seem to point to a nearly inevitable expansion of that civilization beyond its home planet and eventually across interstellar space as its natural teleology — is preempted by the emergence of a completely different kind of civilization, a radically different kind of civilization, or by post-civilization, so that the expected natural teleology of the preempted civilization is interrupted and never comes to fruition.

Thus “the lights go out” for a given alien civilization not because that civilization destroys itself (the Doomsday argument, Solution no. 27 in Webb’s book) and not because it collapses into permanent stagnation or even catastrophic civilizational failure (existential risks outlined by Nick Bostrum), and not because it completes a natural cycle of growth, maturity, decay, and death, but rather because it moves on to the next stage of social institution that lies beyond civilization. In simplest terms, the preemption hypothesis is that industrial-technological civilization, for which the expansion hypothesis holds, is preempted by post-civilization, for which the expansion hypothesis no longer holds. Post-civilization is a social institution derived from civilization but no longer recognizably civilization.

The idea of a technological singularity is one kind of potential preemption of industrial-technological civilization, but certainly not the only possible kind of preemption. There are many possible forms of civilizational preemption, and any attempted list of possible preemptions is limited only by our imagination and our parochial conception of civilization, the latter being informed exclusively by human civilization. It is entirely possible, as another example of preemption, that once a civilization attains a certain degree of technological development, everyone recognizes the pointlessness of the the whole endeavor, all the machines are shut down, and the entire population turns to philosophical contemplation as the only worthy undertaking in life.

Acceleration and Preemption

I have previously argued that civilizations come to maturity in an Axial Age. The Axial Age is a conception due to Karl Jaspers, but I have suggested a generalization that holds for any society that achieves a sufficient degree of development and maturity. What Jaspers postulated for agricultural civilizations, and understood to be a turning point for the world entire, I believe holds for most civilizations, and that each stage in the overall development of civilization may have such a turning point.

Also, the history of human civilization reveals an acceleration. Nomadic hunter-gatherer society required hundreds of thousands of years before it matured into a condition capable of producing the great cave paintings of the upper Paleolithic (which I call the Axialization of the Nomadic Paradigm). The agricultural civilizations that superseded Paleolithic societies with the Neolithic Agricultural Revolution required thousands of years to mature to the point of producing what Jaspers called an Axial Age (The Axial Age for Jaspers).

Industrial civilization has not yet produced an industrialized axialization (though we may look back someday and understand one to have been achieved in retrospect), but the early modern civilization that seemed to be producing a decisively different way of life than the medieval period that preceded it experienced a catastrophic preemption: it did not come to fulfillment on its own terms. In Modernism without Industrialism I argued that modern civilization was effectively overtaken by the sudden and catastrophic emergence of industrialization, which set civilization on an entirely new course.

At each stage of the development of human society the maturation of that society, measured by the ability of that society to give a coherent account of itself in a comprehensive cosmological context (also known as mythology), has come sooner than the last, with the abortive civilization of modernism, Enlightenment, and the scientific revolution derailed and suddenly superseded by a novel and unprecedented development from within civilization. Modernism was preempted by accelerating events, and, specifically, by accelerating technology. It is possible that there are other forms of accelerating development that could derail or preempt that course of development that at present appears to be the natural teleology of industrial-technological civilization.

The Dystopian Hypothesis

Because the most obvious forms of the preemption hypothesis, in terms of the prospects for civilization most widely discussed today, would include the technological singularity, transhumanism, and The Transcension Hypothesis, and also because of the human ability (probably reinforced by the survival value of optimism) to look on the bright side of things, we may lose sight of equally obvious sub-optimal forms of preemption. Suboptimal forms of civilizational preemption, in which civilization does not pass on to developments of greater complexity more technically difficult achievement, could be separately identified as the dystopian hypothesis.

In Miserable and Unhappy Civilizations I suggested that the distinction Freud made between neurotic misery and ordinary human unhappiness can be extended to encompass a distinction between a civilization in the grip of neurotic misery as distinct from a civilization experiencing ordinary civilizational unhappiness. I cited the example of the religious wars of early modern Europe as an example of civilization experiencing neurotic misery (and later went on to suggest that contemporary Islam is a civilization in the grip of neurotic misery). It is possible that neurotic misery at the civilizational level could be perpetuated across time and space so that neurotic misery became the enduring condition of civilization. (This might be considered an instance of what Nick Bostrum called “flawed realization” in his analysis of existential risk.)

It would likely be the case that neurotically miserable civilization — which we might also call dystopian civilization, or a suboptimal civilization — would be incapable of anything beyond perpetuating its miserable existence from one day to the next. The dystopian hypothesis could be assimilated to solution no. 23 in Webb’s book, “They have no desire to communicate,” but there many be many reasons that a civilization lacks a desire to communicate over interstellar distances with other civilizations, so I think that the dystopian lack of motivation deserves its own category as a response to the Fermi paradox.

Whether or not chronic and severe dystopianism could be considered a post-civilization institution and therefore a preemption of industrial-technological civilization is open to question. I will think about this.

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Tuesday


This sketch by Hans Holbein of the family of Sir Thomas Moore (the painting has been lost) shows Moore at the center of the household, presiding like an emperor, while the women of the house are on their knees before him.

In yesterday’s Personal Dystopias I argued that the same kind of thinking that produces dystopian results from utopian intentions when practiced on a visionary scale is responsible for dystopian results from utopian intentions on a personal, local, and even private scale. Thinking more about this, another obvious example is despotism: there are large scale despotisms and small scale despotisms. The traditional patriarchal family structure found throughout much of the world is often modeled on despotic rule within the context of a single family. This is no longer acceptable in the industrialized world as it was in the recent past, but it played a significant role as recently as what I called the conformist patriarchy of mid-twentieth century America in The Agricultural Paradigm.

I realized today that these are examples of what Deleuze called “micropolitics.” I also realized, in contrasting the idea of micropolitics with the implied idea of macropolitics, that these are political instantiations of the microcosm / macrocosm theme, an ancient fractal theme in Western thought in which the large is mirrored in the small and the small is mirrored in the large. From this perspective, it would be interesting to engage in a detailed and through analysis of political paradigms seeking their parallels in private and domestic life, at the same time as seeking parallels of private and domestic life in systems of political and social organization.

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If George Washington is the Father of his Country, does that make us all one, big happy family?

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Personal Dystopias

21 June 2010

Monday


In some earlier posts I have mentioned Vejas Gabriel Liulevicius’ lectures on Utopia and Terror in the 20th Century from The Teaching Company (specifically in The Threshold of Atrocity). One of Liulevicius’ themes is that the attempt to realize ideologically-inspired utopias has more often than not issued in actual dystopias. This is not a theme unique to Liulevicius, but has been a matter of some comment once the trends of the twentieth century became clear. Ideologically motivated terrorist organizations as ruthless and bloodthirsty as the Khmer Rouge, Sendero Luminoso, and Al Qaeda, in their pursuit of utopian political communities, have been the source of death, destruction, and immiserization.

Plato begins the utopian tradition in Western political thought, and therefore also unintentially initiates the dystopian tradition as well.

Such “efforts” — if such we may call them — constitute utopian thinking on a grand scale — visionary utopianism — and therefore issue in dystopian circumstances on a grand scale — if you will, visionary dystopia. While this is the most familiar species of the genus (i.e., the genus of dystopias), it is not the only species of the genus. In the Republic, Plato’s Socrates begins with the inquiry as to what constitutes a just man, and then asserts that, since it is easier to see justice in the large than justice in the small, that he will first inquire into what constitutes a just state. This inquiry constitutes the bulk of the Republic — another utopia which, if realized, would have been a genuinely philosophical dystopia — and so we think of the Republic as a work of political philosophy. But Plato’s Socrates does eventually come around and apply his theory of a just state, mutatis mutandis, to the question of what constitutes a just man. So too it is with dystopia: it is seen more easily in the large than in the small.

Today it occurred to me that small scale dystopias — dystopias decidedly less gruesome than the “visionary” dystopias of the likes of the Khmer Rouge — are not at all uncommon in life, and that they follow from similar motives; namely, the desire to have things be perfect. I am sure that almost anyone reading this who has some life experience has known someone (if not several persons) who are so obsessed with getting things right and making things perfect that these efforts ultimately make the other people around them miserable and unhappy because of their demands for perfection. This is especially the case in regard to the planning of events that are especially valued and which the planners and at least many if not most of the participants would like to have come off as a wonderful event that leaves everyone concerned with wonderful memories. I am thinking about events like weddings and graduations and maybe even birthday parties.

This obsession with perfection and getting everything right, quite explicitly undertaken with the idea that it is in the selfless service of the happiness of others, often takes on a dark and sinister edge. This is one reason I have always instinctively hated and avoided events and parties and social occasions of all kinds. And I have no doubt that many who plan and participate in such events are so deluded that they truly believe that a good time was had by all and that everyone took home wonderful memories. Probably many people did. But by now we all know that utopias come at a cost, and they always come at the greatest cost for those who are least valued. One of the slogans of the Khmer Rouge was, “To keep you is no benefit; to destroy you is no loss.” In other words, if you weren’t with the Khmer Rouge, you were against them, and if you were against them they would rather you were dead. And this was a slogan upon which they acted vigorously and decisively.

It might seem a little bit overly-dramatic for me to compare a wedding or a party gone sour to the killing fields of the Khmer Rouge, but I believe that both follow from the same source, and as long as we are not aware of how utopian thinking goes horribly wrong, we are vulnerable to its depredations on the ordinary — and imperfect — business of life. The overly-eager party planner who wants to regiment the lives of others for an evening is a terrorist in miniature who creates a personal dystopia, and we should be as proportionately intolerant with this kind of for-your-own-good meddling as we are (or should be) proportionately intolerant of terrorism. It is imperfection that makes us human and teaches us humility, and in this spirit we ought to celebrate our imperfections, if not as what is best in us, at least as part of what is best in us.

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Fear of the Future

21 March 2009


During the second half of the twentieth century apocalyptic visions most frequently took the form of nuclear war.

During the second half of the twentieth century apocalyptic visions most frequently took the form of nuclear war.

The Role of Apocalypse in Dystopia

In Technical Ecstasy: Futurism and Dystopia I wrote, “…there must be some kind of deep and inscrutable relationship between the failed predictions of techno-futurists, the fulfilled predictions of aesthetic futurists, and the dystopian vision of science fiction films.” I made a few suggestions in that posting in regard to this complex intersection of ideas, but there is a great deal more that could be said on this head.

For one thing, in my previous post I failed to mention the role of apocalypticism, which is no small part of the intersection of futurism and dystopia. There is an entire sub-genre of science fiction books and films (not to mention games) that deal with the topic of some sort of apocalypse, whether as it is happening or long after it has happened. It is a common theme to explore dystopian societies that emerge in the aftermath of catastrophic change. The Omega Man, for example, considers a dystopian future in the immediate aftermath of catastrophic change, whereas, for example, Logan’s Run considers a dystopian society in the distant future following catastrophic change. The Time Machine shows us an even farther distant future, in which evolution has done its work and has separated human beings into two distinct species.

I rather liked how the morlocks were treated in the 2002 version of The Time Machine. Not only had human beings bifurcated into two species, the eloi and the morlocks, but the morlocks themselves had arrived at an insect-like specialization with castes of distinct phenotypes.

I rather liked how the morlocks were treated in the 2002 version of The Time Machine. Not only had human beings bifurcated into two species, the eloi and the morlocks, but the morlocks themselves had arrived at an insect-like specialization with castes of distinct phenotypes.

Before science fiction, there were the visions of mystics to excite our wonder and incredulity. What could be more dystopic than the reign of the Antichrist? Due to its present usage, it is little known that “apocalypse” is simply the Greek word that has been translated into Latinate languages as “revelation,” thus The Apocalypse of St. John is the same thing as saying The Revelation of St. John. Thus, in an etymological sense, to be apocalyptic is to be revelatory, an unveiling of truths: it is to be shown something. And certainly the science fiction films of apocalyptic futures seek to show us something. One could even argue, on the basis of Wittgenstein’s distinction between saying and showing, for the necessity of a cinematic revelation of contemporary visions of apocalypse and dystopia.

Albrecht Dürer, The Revelation of St John: 13. The Adoration of the Lamb and the Hymn of the Chosen, 1497-98, Woodcut, 39 x 28 cm; Dürer made a total of 15 woodcuts to illustrate the bizarre images of the Apocalypse of St. John the Divine.

Albrecht Dürer, The Revelation of St John: 13. The Adoration of the Lamb and the Hymn of the Chosen, 1497-98, Woodcut, 39 x 28 cm; Dürer made a total of 15 woodcuts to illustrate the bizarre images of the Apocalypse of St. John the Divine.

An apocalypse (in the contemporary meaning of the term) or a catastrophe, is a selection event. A selection event may select for a species or population (which is sometimes called proselection) or it can select against a species or population (called deselection). There is as yet no consensus within evolutionary theory as to whether natural selection works exclusively through one mechanism or the other, or by a combination of both. As commonly portrayed in contemporary science fiction, apocalyptic events are usually deselections of human beings, threatening our extinction.

Two franchises not previously discussed are of particular interest in regard to the intersection of dystopia and apocalypse: The Matrix and Battlestar Galactica.

The Matrix

The Matrix films depict a many-layered dystopia following from a many-layered catastrophe. Here we have we have apocalypse and dystopia raised to a higher order of magnitude. There was a war between man and machines — several of them in fact — and subsequent machine extirpation of the remnants of independent human civilization. Here human beings are not threatened with extinction, but with absolute industrial regimentation and subordination. Human bodies are actually used to produce the electricity required by machines; to that end, human minds are utterly and completely controlled by the machines. It would be difficult to imagine a more oppressive and dehumanizing industrial regime than this.

The Morpheus interrogation scene shows that the machines are in control now.

The Morpheus interrogation scene shows that the machines are in control now.

The Matrix films also are bound up with the fear of automatonism previously discussed in Technical Ecstasy. The Enemy is the machine. Unlike the Borg of Star Trek, the machines of The Matrix are purely machines and make no pretense to either being human or having human values or wanting to become human beings.

In The Matrix the machines offer their own interpretation of natural history and indeed offer a new eschatological history in which machines replace human beings.

In The Matrix the machines offer their own interpretation of natural history and indeed offer a new eschatological history in which machines replace human beings.

In The Matrix there is a scene in which Agent Smith is interrogating Morpheus (the god of sleep, for are we not all dreaming while we are in the matrix?). The monologue delivered by Agent Smith is explicitly evolutionary in character, describing human beings in thoroughly naturalistic terms, but with the twist that human behavior requires their classification as a virus rather than a mammal. Machines are presented as the cure to the human disease.

Agent Smith demonstrates a contempt for the human condition that will later be reiterated by Cavil in Battlestar Galactica.

Agent Smith demonstrates a contempt for the human condition that will later be reiterated by Cavil in Battlestar Galactica.

The interrogation scene with Agent Smith and Morpheus also also features an exposition of the eschatological hopes of machines to replace human beings — a quasi-Oedipal theme that, like machine contempt for the feebleness of the human condition, will be reiterated in Battlestar Galactica. (The same theme also appears in Star Trek Borg episodes in which the Borg Queen speaks contemptuously of those who choose to remain “small.”)

Battlestar Galactica

In Battlestar Galactica we have an explicit extinction scenario. The number of human beings is reduced to about fifty thousand, and these numbers decline as the series develops. Under relentless attack, human beings turn on each other and seem unable to cooperate even when it is necessary to our survival.

The enemy in Battlestar Galactica, as in The Matrix, and as with The Borg, is the machine. The machine adversary of Battlestar Galactica represents something of a halfway point between the pure machines of The Matrix, who make a pretense to humanity or organicism, and the mechanized half-organic, half-machine Borg. The Battlestar Galactica machines (i.e., the Cylons, a name that comes from ancient Greek history, by the way) constitute a stratified society of insect-like specialization (as noted above in the case of the morlocks in The Time Machine), with some models being obviously mechanical, others faithful facsimiles of human beings, and still others, hybrids, somewhere in between.

Moreover, the Cylons hold out the hope of hybridizing with human beings. This is one of the central themes of Battlestar Galactica, and it is especially interesting from an evolutionary point of view. If Cylons and human beings can produce viable offspring, this would demonstrate that they are not in fact separate species according to most scientific definitions of what a species is.

The Cylons of Battlestar Galactica undergo self-driven adaptive radiation, apparently motivated by their grand strategy of dominating the known universe, also known as "The Plan."

The Cylons of Battlestar Galactica undergo self-driven adaptive radiation, apparently motivated by their grand strategy of dominating the known universe, also known as "The Plan."

In a recent episode of Battlestar Galactica (“No Exit,” named after the famous play by Sartre) there is a confrontation between Cavil and a resurrected Ellen Tigh. The whole episode is rather talky and violates the screenwriter’s basic imperative to “show it, don’t say it,” but there is a lot of ground to cover and it would take several episodes at, say, the pace of the first season, to give an adequate exposition of the backstory and dilemma. The dialogue between Cavil and Ellen develops throughout the episode and constitutes one long conversation and confrontation.

A talky and jargon-filled confrontation between Cavil and Ellen that tries to explain a lot of Cylon backstory. A frame-tale narrrative over several episodes would have been better, but they apparently didn't have the time, the money, or the inclination.

A talky and jargon-filled confrontation between Cavil and Ellen that tries to explain a lot of Cylon backstory. A frame-tale narrative over several episodes would have been better, but they apparently didn't have the time, the money, or the inclination.

The most interesting part of this confrontation is not the Cylon backstory but the exposition of the machine point of view and in some ways covers much of the same ground as the interrogation of Morpheus by Agent Smith discussed above. Indeed, there are more parallelisms between these two scenes than can be dealt with in any brief compass. One assumes that the writers of Battlestar Galactica must have had the Morpheus interrogation scene in mind, whether implicitly or explicitly, when they wrote this face off between Ellen, representing something of the human point of view, and Cavil, representing the machine point of view.

Contemporary philosopher Thomas Nagel wrote a well-known and influential paper, “What is it like to be a bat?” and we might see this scene with Cavil and Ellen, as well as the Morpheus interrogation scene, as an exercise in the attempt to answer the question, “What is it like to be a machine?” Nagel wrote, “the essence of the belief that bats have experience is that there is something that it is like to be a bat…” The parallel formulation for the present instance would be that the essence of the belief that conscious machines would have experience is that there is something that it is like to be a machine. But it’s actually a little more complicated than that, because Cavil is a machine who wants to be the best machine that he can be, and he is deeply resentful of being embodied in a facsimile of a human body, with all its attendant limitations.

It emerges in this exposition of backstory that Cavil has arranged the embodiment of his creators into ordinary human lives (albeit lives engineered to give them front row seats to a holocaust) so that his creators might experience how awful human life is and thus repent of creating him in their human image. It is apparently the hope of Cavil that the inadequacies and limitations of human life foisted upon him might be made good if only he can bring his errant and misguided creators to realize the folly of their ways.

Industrialization and Disaffection

The fears of the future so dramatically illustrated by these tales of machine dominance have an obvious source, and that is the claim since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution that the industrialization and mechanization of life was leading to dehumanization. This protest has taken many forms over the past hundred and fifty years: economic, social, political, cultural, and so forth.

The city transformed by industrialization became the focus of the Industrial Revolution (L.S. Lowry, Industrial City, 1948).

The city transformed by industrialization became the focus of the Industrial Revolution (L.S. Lowry, Industrial City, 1948).

Nothing could stop the relentless transformation of society wrought by the Industrial Revolution, but the fact that individuals were powerless before forces greater than themselves virtually guaranteed that personal protests against the industrial order would be the primary form of outlet for the frustrations of contemporary life. Communist revolutions (which, from the perspective of the Industrial Revolution, are counter-revolutionary reactionary movements) sought to overturn the newly emergent industrial order, but only succeeded in replacing one group of elites with another. Nothing about industrial society was transformed by communist management of the process. If anything, industrialization under communist regimes was more brutal than elsewhere (cf. The Credibility Paradox).

One form of release (what Freud called "discharge" in his Selected Papers on Hysteria) from the anomie, alienation, and - of life in industrialized society.

One form of release (what Freud called "discharge" in his Selected Papers on Hysteria) from the anomie, alienation, disaffection, and dehumanization of life in industrialized society.

In the complexity, busyness, and bureaucracy of the modern world it is difficult for individuals to maintain a sense of personal importance. Everything in industrialized society makes individuals anonymous. One is treated like a number, an interchangeable cog in an enormous and indifferent machine. With the failure of social movements seeking to redress the grievances of industrialization, there remains only personal protest and the personal quest for self-aggrandizement. For example, the character of Tony Manero in the film “Saturday Night Fever” expresses dissatisfaction with the anonymity of his life, and finds his satisfaction in dancing, for which he receives the approbation of his friends and thus a temporary sense of importance.

An industrial worker carries the weight of the industrialized city on his back.

An industrial worker carries the weight of the industrialized city on his back, lit glowing red from below like Hell or a blast furnace.

Disaffection with and alienation from industrialized society is a function of the failure to achieve a social consensus for living in industrialized society. Without a social consensus, society drifts and is utterly at the mercy of the dehumanizing forces of industrialization. Fears of dehumanization manifested themselves early in the history of cinema, most notably in the classic 1927 Fritz Lang film Metropolis. The film is perhaps best remembered in science fiction annals for its elegant female robot (and we note, in reference to above examples, that the robot is evil), but just as central are the relentless images of mechanized and industrialized dehumanization. There are not only dark and looming cities, a Stygian labyrinth in which the unwary are consumed by the beast that is industrialization, but we are also shown industrial workers who are literally crucified on time clocks, sacrificed to mind-numbing labor.

Crucified upon the face of a clock: hourly wage labor as a sacrifice demanded by industrialized society.

Crucified upon the face of a clock: hourly wage labor as a sacrifice demanded by industrialized society.

Thus the connection between apocalypse and dystopia finally becomes clear: apocalyptic visions graphically illustrate the overthrow of the industrial city and the order over which it presided. The science fiction films we have discussed are replete with such dramatic images: an abandoned and ivy-covered Washington DC in Logan’s Run (which latter also includes another evil robot), the dark, forbidding ruined cities of The Matrix, the nuclear annihilation of the Colonies in Battlestar Galactica, and the empty metropolis of The Omega Man. While such images are threatening, they are also liberating. The end of the industrial city and of industrial civilization means the end of wage slavery, the end of the clocks and calendars that control our lives, and the end of lives so radically ordered and densely scheduled that they have ceased to resemble life and appear more like the pathetic delusions of the insane.

The Technological Frontier

In contradistinction to this marked strain of anxiety over the mechanization of human life in industrial society, there is also a tradition of futurism that celebrates all that industrialization promises. For industrial society emerged simultaneously with modern science and technology, each historical development driving the other. Futurism focuses not on the dehumanizing forces of industrial society, but on the triumphs and promises of the science and technology that emerge in co-evolution with industrialization.

Beside the aesthetic expression of fascination with the future and machines celebrated by the Futurists, what I have previously called techno-futurism explicitly celebrates the technological aspects of a futurity in which human life is augmented by its union with the machine — precisely the horror envisioned in the Borg and in human-Cylon hybridism, but here not perceived as any kind of horror at all. This is the so-called technological singularity, of which we have previously dealt with.

I sing the Body Electric, or, to be more specific, the Feminine Electric: is this to be feared as dystopia or welcomed as futurism?

I sing the Body Electric, or, to be more specific, the Feminine Electric: is this to be feared as dystopia or welcomed as futurism?

There has long been more generalized optimism in North America than elsewhere in the world. This in itself is a complex and difficult question that we will not investigate critically here. Rather, I will make several (admittedly problematic) assumptions. One of the sources of this optimism, of this welcoming attitude to the future, is the frontier. North America presented western civilization with a unique frontier experience. South America was less of a frontier experience since it was settled inward from the coast, like a noose tightening around the continent. North America presented the spectacle of relentless westward expansion in order to fulfill the promise of European civilization in the New World (also known as “manifest destiny”). The frontier experience was further punctuated with events like the gold rush of 1849, further fueling the dreams of those willing to take the risks to head out west.

The gold rush of 1849 constituted a frontier experience combined with American optimism and the idea of manifest destiny.

The gold rush of 1849 constituted a frontier experience combined with American optimism and the idea of manifest destiny.

Technology, in the minds of its enthusiasts (the most enthusiastic among them being singulatarians), is a frontier. It is the new frontier, and it promises wonderful rewards to its adepts, such as frontiers have always promised. In the Frontier, any man can be an explorer and an adventurer. Indeed, Everyman can be an explorer and adventurer. One need only place oneself within the frontier in order to become a part of a select society of pathfinders in a new world. This is a possibility that is foreclosed in a fully formed, fully known, and fully mature world.

Everyman is an adventurer in the frontier (William Henry Jackson, North from Berthoud Pass, 1871).

Everyman is an adventurer and explorer in the frontier (William Henry Jackson, North from Berthoud Pass, 1871).

I am well aware of the criticism of the concept of the frontier by the “New Western History” and especially in the work of Patricia Limerick. While I cannot disagree that the frontier is a place of “Conquest, Convergence, Continuity, and Complexity,” I think that the critics of the concept of the frontier have thrown out the baby with the bathwater. I think it is high time to re-examine the “frontier thesis” for what remains valuable in it. And one value that it may have for us is an explication of the technological frontier.

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The railroad as a form of "conquest": the unity of western frontier and technological frontier (Frances Flora Palmer, for Currier and Ives, Across the Continent: Westward the Course of Empire Makes Its Way, 1868).

The railroad as a form of "conquest": the unity of the western frontier and the technological frontier (Frances Flora Palmer, for Currier and Ives, Across the Continent: Westward the Course of Empire Makes Its Way, 1868).

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