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Praise the Lord & Pass the Critical Theory: An Interview with Praba Pilar of the Church of Nano Bio Info Cogno

I was at a film shooting at San Francisco Art Institute for the William S. Burroughs bioturd project, when two women in inexplicable silver space outfits that — if I recall correctly — covered everything but their eyes and mouths — walked in.  Naturally, I wondered who they were.  When they told me that they were from the Church of Nano Bio Info Cogno, I fell to my knees and kissed their rings.

Ummm…  ok, actually I don’t think they had rings and I didn’t fall to my knees.  I, in fact, assumed that their intentions were wholly satirical.  Thinking fast, I confiscated a business card from one of them — name: Praba Pilar.  Sure enough… Church of Nano Bio Info Cogno. Hmmm.

I promised her all glory in the haloed halls of H+ Magazine, slipped into the gendered toilet facility provided by the debased corporate liberals who run that institution, got out my shoe phone and called my slavemaster at Illuminati Central.

I can’t tell you who he is, but let’s just call him Sheen.  He assured me that everything was under control.  He calmed me with promises of new shipments of vasopressin, resveratrol and tiger’s blood.  Then he said I should go ahead and interview this so-called preacher from the Church of Nano Bio Info Cogno.  He said that true believers in Nano Bio Info Cogno would not be tricked or tripped up by this decongratulatory nonsense (I think he meant deconstructionist).

I went to Priba’s Nano Bio Info Cogno website and viewed the videos provided there.  They were not hilarious, but decidedly amusing.

A few weeks later, full of tiger’s blood and vasopressin, I emailed Ms. Pilar her first set of questions.  These are the results.

R.U. Sirius:  Could you describe how you first ran into the concept of Nano Bio Info Cogno?

Praba Pilar:  Back in 1998, I began a long and committed series of counter narrative performance projects critiquing negative aspects of capitalist techno culture, including the Cyborg Soap Opera; Computers Are A Girl’s Best Friend; El World Brain Disorder; Humaquina: Manifest Tech-Destiny; Techno-Promesas: Putografia Virtual; Global Warmaquina; Edu-Maquina: De-EducacionWebopticon: Arquitectura of Control and the Hexterminators.  In each of these projects, I examined an ethical problematic within the field – the ethics of recycling electronics and the exportation of hazardous waste to Asia; of access to the digital revolutions amidst a digital divide; of militarization of emerging technologies and robotics; of the tech ‘boom’ in San Francisco and resulting displacement/gentrification of immigrant communities; of biopiracy and the human genome diversity project; of Monsanto’s seed sterilizing biotechnology and saved seed farming.

I was reading broadly in the field, and in 2005, I read a National Science Foundation Report titled “Managing Nano-Bio-Info-Cogno Innovations: Converging Technologies in Society”, which described emerging technologies and the convergence in the most hyperbolic prose. The NSF Report began (italics and bolding mine):  “At this point in history, tremendous human progress becomes possible through converging technologies stimulated by advances in four core fields: Nanotechnology, Biotechnology, Information technology, and new technologies based in Cognitive science (NBIC)….  The great convergence that is taking place today should not be mistaken for the mundane growth of interdisciplinary or multidisciplinary fields. For many decades, small-scale convergence has taken place in areas such as astrophysics, biochemistry, and social psychology. However significant these local convergences have seemed for the scientists involved in them, they pale in comparison with the global convergence that is posed to occur in the coming decades. It will constitute a major phase change in the nature of science and technology, with the greatest possible implications for the economy, society, and culture.”

As I began to look into the NBIC field more deeply, I read Eric Drexler, learned of the Foresight Institute and began to attend their conferences on the convergence, ultimately becoming a member.

RUS: How did you come to perceive a kind of religiosity — or the presence of something equivalent to religion — among the transhumanists who embrace the idea that NBIC would bring great change to the world?

PP: The first source of my ludic displacement was the very language of the report above.  Embedded in the report are sweeping statements that do not account in any way for the class, race, gender and locative barriers to access to advanced technology.  Which part of humanity will go through the phase change and which part will be left behind?  Where exactly will the progress be experienced, and where will it be thwarted?  How do we define progress?

I began reading Ray Kurzweil, the futurist, who in addition to writing the Age of Spiritual Machines, is the author of the Singularity is Near, and The Age of Intelligent Machines, has been crowned by Forbes Magazine as “the ultimate thinking machine.”  He spoke as a prophet, declaring:  Evolution has been seen as a billion-year drama that has led inexorably to its grandest creation:  human intelligence.  The emergence in the early twenty-first century of a new form of intelligence on Earth that can compete with and ultimately significantly exceed, human intelligence will be a development of greater import that any of the events that have shaped human history.  There will be no mortality.  Our immortality will be a matter of being sufficiently careful to make frequent backups.

I found the hubris in his proclamations in perfect sync with mystical literature of days gone by, and downright ludic.  Simultaneously, while I was attending these conferences, I realized that the discourse was being generated by multiple agents:  Western governments with a neo-liberal economic agenda; multi-national corporations which have centralized the life sciences industry; military industrial complexes developing advanced weaponry and robotics; and universities promoting their labs.  These agents spin their capitalist project by proclaiming that advanced technologies will solve poverty, disease and hunger, and through their discourse lay the ground for a deployment of international development policies, which are in actuality detrimental to the economies, and ecosystems of the Third World.

At the Foresight conferences I have attended, I have seen the technogliterati come together to share highly specialized information and create the culture and myths of the technology revolution –— and I have found these conferences and gatherings to be extremely exclusionary and dominated by white males.  The sharing of technological advances at these conferences is rapturous: in descriptions of immortality promised by information uploads; in prophesies of the end of material want promised by nano manufacturing; in the promise of the end of illness brought about by nano medicine.  The best presentations are usually done by military contractors such as Lockheed Martin.

Joel Dinerstein has pointed out in Technology and its Discontents, On the Verge of the Posthuman that the roots of technology run deep into the Christian faith.  Technology is the source of Euro-American superiority within modernity.  It begins with the myth of a new white Adam-ic, with Christians attempting to recuperate Edenic purity through virtuous work.  This central belief set men as coworkers with God in making over the planet to prepare for the second coming of Christ.

This has translated over time to an American myth of origin, where frontier settlements were seen as the technological transformation of an untouched space – the second creation.  In the mid-1930’s, Lewis Mumford noted in his tome Technics and Civilization, that the American belief system is based on a mechano-centric religion, where technology is the unspoken God driving development.  By the late 1990s David Noble was writing in The Religion of Technology that the current techno mythologies trace their roots to a doctrine that combines milleniarism, rationalism and Christian redemption in the writings of monks, explorers, inventors and NASA scientists.  He exposed our techno cultural matrix:  progress, religion, whiteness, modernity, masculinity, the future.

I created The Church of Nano Bio Info Cogno (the Church) in 2006 as a performative challenge to this discourse, to expose the class origins and Euro-American centrism of agents behind the technology revolution. The Church transports itself around the world offering fantastical prophesies, outrageous sermons, incantations in code, neo rituals and a freshly minted techno-communion with emerging technology.  Inverting phobic cries for a precautionary principle, the Church proclaims a liturgy that drives these technologies forward into the neoteric millennium.  Providing a cutting edge look at the deployment of emerging technologies around the world, this au courant Church reveals the contradictions inherent in this discourse.

A deeper reading of the Church of Nano Bio Info Cogno reveals that the satirical undertones critique the dominant discourse surrounding technological development at the dawn of the 21st century.  As the Reverend of the Church, I embody the techno fundamentalist position while exposing that while we are enamored of our technologies, this love is contextualized within a history of conservative Euro-American myths of progress.  The Church forms part of a history of oppositional performance projects.   Other oppositional churches that spring to mind include the Church of Stop Shopping, headed by Reverend Billy, or the Church of Skeptical Mysticism, headed by Andrew Boyd.  The Church of Nano Bio Info Cogno is distinguished from these other churches in that it does not directly oppose nor reify the dominant discourse.  Through satire, it creates a third path to negotiate a majoritarian discourse that punishes those in opposition as imbeciles, Luddites, or wacko environmentalists.  Through its performances, the Church rearticulates the mytho-religious discourse in a way that leads to a revisioning of the terms of the dialogue.  It is working indirectly with the tools of the master to promote a radical relocation and analysis of the discourse to its historical roots within Christianity.  These ideas are extremely damaging to those who stand outside of the myth of progress and of white, Western superiority and the creation stories imbedded deep in the colonialist project.

RUS: Following up on my first question… implicit in your use of the word hyperbolic would be the idea that these claims are false.  Do you believe that changes brought by NBIC will not be “tremendous” or do you just feel it’s inappropriate for a federal agency to use descriptive adjectives or…?

In other words, as per the answer to my second question…  is this satirical dissent driven entirely by your disapproval of the social and economic context in which these technologies are emerging or do you have a technological argument that the expectations for these fields are invalid? Do you have an ethical argument against their potential uses to cure disease or manufacture material wealth?’

PP: I think about this question a lot, in terms of the historicity of the promotion of emerging technologies and how this wave of promotion is linked to Western progress narratives, capitalism and the military industrial complex.  What I oppose in this hyperbolic rhetoric is the pervasive notion that scientists, technologists, the military and multi-national life science corporations can devise a technological “fix” to the most pressing issues facing humanity.  This technological “fix” stands outside of critical race, class, and gender barriers that are intertwined in the neocolonialist, neoliberal world economy — very complex relations that perpetuate incredibly destructive and deadly injustice and oppression.  Low cost, “appropriate” technologies – the kind studied by E. F. Schumacher – are not sponsored by development agencies, instead highly disputed genetically engineered seeds are promoted as far reaching fixes, so that Monsanto and Dupont can move products.  I am Colombian, and I don’t forget the failure of the technologically driven “green” revolution in Latin America. Yes the US loaned Third World governments money to buy equipment for farmers in rural areas, but no, those farmers could not afford to power any of that equipment.  They did not need this kind of technology at all.

To be very clear, I am not “anti” technology per se, not in the least.  I have worked as a technology director for non-profits, my bachelors degree is in electronic arts, and I make a living using advanced technology.  I am deeply interested in appropriate and sustainable technologies and in pointing out the interconnections between technology, the military and the socio economic and environmental spheres.  I find the rhetoric promulgated by industry/government to stand outside of this complex nexus, to ignore how access to technology, to medical care and how environmental damage is classed, how production of technology is gendered.  Rather than reinventing a new world where all of humanity will benefit, as is claimed, only a narrow band of the population that will be “uplifted” in beneficial ways.

R.U. Sirius:  Describe what happens at a church performance. And where has it been performed? How do the “parishoners” respond?  And where has it been performed?

PP: Church performances are pure spectacle, and they change with the venue and audience.  The underlying structure is a call and response, with two altar girls who call to me in C++ code; they wake me out of my digital dreams into action.  After my altar girls assure the parishioners that they should joyously commune with their personal electronic devices, and leave them on, I enter in robes singing an inspiring neo spiritual describing my twisted conversion from technophobe to technophile.  When I was working on the worldwide movement against Monsanto Corporation’s seed sterilizing technologies, around 1998, I was diagnosed and subsequently treated for a debilitating, potentially terminal illness.  The treatment was genetically engineered medication, and it cured me and gave me a second chance at life, so to speak.  The song highlights this autobiographical experience.

A service then gets into gear with a reading of the “word,” directly channeled by our Techno Holy Ghost: Google.  I begin with the famous line:  “In the beginning was the command line…”, carrying on, “the command line gave birth to code… from code came the graphic user interface… and from this interface was born the cyborg revolution… The cyborg revolution will not be televised – but it will be youtubed…”  This leads to an invocation of the Nanarchist, who leads us all down the path to temptation.  Parishioners are encouraged to come forward and confess any and all sins against technology, and I provide penance and absolution.  Some confess to overloading servers, some to responding to spammers, some to clinging to their meat body in the face of cyborg advances.  We then parse together for cyborg communion, where the parishioners come down the aisles to be fed RFID tags for permanent identification.  As people sit down again, I dive into a rapid fire sermon, which is a highly satirical run through of the latest technology news, whether it be ranting against Wall-E for not showing that humans will be the robots, or railing about the stem cell debate or how the 2012 apocalypse will be the moment of singularity.  Endings are flexible. Sometimes I rent a fucking machine and simulate intercourse with it as a tech version of Amazing Grace is sung. Sometimes I do a sing along with the audience.

I’ve presented the Church at various types of venues, from museums to universities to informal spaces.  The Church was included in the Bay Area Now 5 exhibition at Center for the Arts at Yerba Buena, in San Francisco, as well as at the Sonoma County Museum.  I have also presented it at conferences, such as the “NatureCulture: Entangled Relations of Multiplicity” of the Society for Cultural Anthropology, at the Radical Philosophers Association Conference under the banner of Art, Praxis and Social Transformation and at the Seminar in Experimental Critical Theory.

RUS: In attending Foresight conferences and so forth, did you never run into others than the type you described…  the corporate elite, military industrial contractors etcetera?  Hackers? Freelance philosophers with unique spins on postmodernity?  Leftist technophiles?   Honestly, your description sounds like it only describes a portion of what I’ve seen and heard in these circles.

PP: Let me put it to you this way. There is a notable difference between what I see at different NBIC convergence events/industry conferences and what I see in my diverse community in Oakland, California.  I focus on the homogeneity of the attendees I encounter, and on the ones who are making decisions and have power, such as Lockheed Martin.

RUS:  I have to ask you about elitism in terms of your use of language.  You use a language style and a  fair amount of terms that are common among a particular group of academically inclined theorists that generally come out of poststructuralism and “critical theory.” Isn’t it a more exclusive and arcane form of communication — harder for the average person to grasp than — say, your average DARPA press release?

PP: The use of specialized language can be fraught, with charges of elitism for specificity and critical contextualization being driven through a backdrop of anti-intellectualism that is prevalent throughout the United States.  Language is fluid and use depends on context.  I use very playful, accessible language during my live performances, but in other contexts choose a more precise theoretical language to convey the complex ideas underlying my work.

11 Comments

  1. The funny thing is, all of the people commenting sound as if they’re already committed members of the Church of Nano Bio Info Cogno.

  2. I may be the only one thinking this, but unless this person is an absolute nihilist, I can’t imagine that she/they would hate the very technology that saved her, which leads me to wonder if she is actually completely a pro-Transhumanist, but is getting the message and very language out in a comical way to the very people who fear H+ and Singularity, but in a way that is acceptable to them so that they, in turn, will accept the concept and change their minds.

    Should I have put periods in the previous paragraph, somewhere? 😉

  3. I find her points interesting but her focus misplaced. If she is concerned about the lack of technology development and proliferation to the 3rd world, then start an organization that focus on such an endeavor. As an African American, I am proud to be a part of the tech crowd that she appears to resent and I hope that other minorities will join soon (Plenty of room at the bottom, middle, and top). Yes, white males are dominating this niche area for the moment, but this is b/c they are the ones pioneering this particular niche. Once the world truly understands the transformational power of NBIC, they too will be converted to the ‘techno’ perspective–not religion–which is an inflexible, unchanging view of the world.

  4. With what seems to be a brilliant mind (and such a kickin vocab to boot), couldn’t this chick do something better with her time? Or does she just have us duped with all the cool verbiage? One thing is for sure. God will not be mocked. Turn or burn Ms. Pilar of the Church of Nano Bio Info Cogno.

  5. A person in costume in San Francisco that doesn’t like neo-liberal economics and euro-america centrism? Amazing.

  6. “I use very playful, accessible language during my live performances, but in other contexts choose a more precise theoretical language to convey the complex ideas underlying my work. turn into a word-salad shooter spewing incomprehensible strings PhD-ese used to bloat dissertation word counts and fit into academic circles that have little or no connection to reality. ”

    Fixed that for ya.

  7. I disagree with Prabar that that the idea of NBIC convergence and its attendant culture is inherently a product of European Christiandom. If you look at many Asian countries, you’ll see that they are even more excited about the potential for NBIC convergence than the Western ones.

    I do however agree with Prabar that technology will not solve all our problems. What it will do is make it a lot easier to solve many of our problems. And just because a lot of this technology is being developed by multi-national corporations and the military industrial complex does not mean that its ultimate use will be what its creators intend. The internet is a product of the military industrial complex, but it has taken on a life of its own and in many ways works against its creator.

    • Whoever funds the research will develop the technology to suit them. It’s not realistic to think that these technologies are ‘pro-corporate-white-power elitism’ just because those who provide the money for the developmental programs grants it for the military. This sort of spin creates a sort of paranoia about technology. The people that she pokes fun of are doing something to counteract this which is to get people excited about the benefits of such technology. If you want funding to come from sources other than corporate or military based agendas then you have to make nanotechnology appealing to altruistic financiers.

  8. cyberpunk dystopianism got tired. since hg wells (or eta hoffman), sci fi writers have latched onto the negative side of tech due to their need for dramatic conflict. the news media also loves to megaphone negativity to steal the spotlight and manipulate the collective limbic system.

    I find the blue sky tech predictions of new start ups and dreamy techno geeks to be much needed tonic in a world with catastrophic political realities and mortality closing in. I guess this falls into the catagory of window shopping in magazines for products I could never afford. another harsh reality wrapped in a candy wrapper. but sometimes a cheery candy wrapper is shiny and makes for something nice to line the bird cage.

  9. “I have to ask you about elitism in terms of your use of language. You use a language style and a fair amount of terms that are common among a particular group of academically inclined theorists that generally come out of poststructuralism and “critical theory.” Isn’t it a more exclusive and arcane form of communication — harder for the average person to grasp than — say, your average DARPA press release?”

    Great question. 🙂

    Why does she feel so much resentment toward people who are optimistic about the future? Satire is supposed to be a way of using humor to point out social issues that are flawed in order to bring about reform. I don’t find her rants to be funny. It’s just weird. I can see how her strategy is effective in making peaceful techno geeks appear weird, but I don’t see a need for them to reform so what is the point of her making such a mockery? People have been making fun of nerds for many years now. Tell her that 1980 called and they need another bully to make fun of geeks.

    Personally, I would never join a church. I attend a variety of places to worship such as Hindu temples, Catholic mass, Jewish temples, Christian churches, etc., but I would never join one. I respect a person’s right to express their spirituality in community settings and respect our rights to gather together. She neither shows respect or tolerance for differnent viewpoints/beliefs, nor does she show respect for our right to gather and discuss peaceful ways to use technology. I think her actions are in more need of reform than the “techno hippy scum” she makes fun of.

  10. great, he wants to focus in on the similarities but I am dying to know what he thinks the differences are between “new age” spirituality in Oakland and elite transhumanist leaders.

    or if not that, then why aren’t the differences significant? What’s his goal besides art?

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