[Editor’s note: the site hosting the article by Michael Rectenwald was down at the time of publishing]
In an essay at the Marxist journal Insurgent Notes, Michael Rectenwald points to transhumanist and singularitarian literature and examines what he considers to be their primary flaws. This is a response to the most robust claims in the essay, isolated for their importance to readers considering both sides of the argument.
A technological singularity, as predicted by “Singularitarians” like Ray Kurzweil, is the focus of Rectenwald’s analysis. In Kurzweil’s theories, as abridged by Rectenwald, a techno-utopia is guaranteed by technology advancing exponentially. Rectenwald’s essay sees such an outcome as unrealistic at best, and a cloak for an impending oppressive regime at worst. In fact, the latter is Rectenwald’s conclusion, but I will respond to that in good time.
In one narrative, says Rectenwald, we have the singularitarians and transhumanists standing in opposition to the “neo-Luddite left” who oppose almost all technology defining the modern world, decrying its responsibility for the excesses of industrial civilization and modern warfare. Transhumanists also have opponents in the “religious and humanist right”, the essay points out, but their criticism takes a very different line. They consider singularitarianism and transhumanism as similarly threatening or analogous to Marxism, and like to criticize it on this basis. Apparently, all are forms of “scientism”, departing from culturally or emotionally rich forms of knowledge and experience to instead simply support some cold version of progress.
To discredit the above notion held by right-wing opponents of transhumanism, Rectenwald objects to any idea that Marxism may be “techno-determinist” in nature, saying that Marxists do not consider the social order to be determined by technology, or for science and technology to be able to develop autonomously in some particular direction. On the latter point, many might simply disagree with Marxist orthodoxy from their own firsthand experience. I myself use some technologies that have determined entire arenas in the social order and appear to be developing autonomously in a direction not anticipated by their creators. As Julian Assange has said, “Technology and science is not neutral. There are particular forms of technology that can give us these fundamental rights and freedoms that many people have aspired to for long”
Rectenwald goes on to argue that, although Marxism simply considers technology to be a reflection of oppressive economic machinations and really incapable of having any progressive value in its own right, Marxism is open to borrowing, using or even improving upon “bourgeois” technology for its own ends. However, Marxism is discriminating when it comes to technology and will destroy anything that it determines to have been created for “domination or destruction”. Of course, it is hard to object to the wills being expressed in the above. Of course a technology meant for oppression or depriving people of life is not good, but such evil would stop in any instance where moral operators replaced immoral ones. In addition, it might be selfish or shortsighted to throw any research away because of some righteous moral attitude. An entire line of research is seldom without some merit, even simply for the sake of scientific curiosity.
The thirteenth paragraph in Rectenwald’s essay has a very definite case to be heard against “Singularitarian priorities”. Consider how oppressive the fixation on saving a few select people’s brain processes is when we stand in view of the basic misery of so many people who still fail to live any satisfying mortal existence. To salvage and preserve the status quo with technology seems at least inhumane, when we consider how imperfect the social order continues to be. It is suspicious indeed if someone is willing to teach transcending the body itself, yet incapable of devoting a minute to consider the fate of the oppressed.
Reaffirming his commitment to the Marxist theoretical position already mentioned, Rectenwald states that “all technologies bear the marks of their makers’ priorities for their users. All constrain and construct experiences in particular ways.” This is a valid point, but miniaturization, decentralization, geek culture and the ease of hacking and tweaking potentially allows ever more intricate devices of civilization to flow away from the designs of their creators ever more easily. For example, in a 2012 paper by Yannick Rumpala, we find that the political and economic impacts of additive manufacturing may be extremely democratic and even threaten the current mode of production. Such an outcome is not a conspiracy, but an accidental outcome simply from creating ever more efficient and smaller machines.
The essay tries to ponder how brain-machine interfaces might allow the elimination of certain motivations and experiences that perhaps allow us to think critically, challenge injustice or be moved emotionally. This is, of course, possible, but it would have to happen by design. The question is, why would anyone want this and who would consent to such interfaces if any value to their existence is going to be deleted in the process of using these interfaces? Might “enhancements” really just be cover for making people install body implants that make them compliant and unable to think critically? Unlikely, considering that Kurzweil and others in his camp who favor salvaging and enhancing the human mind are thinking about humanity’s long-term future and decisions, perhaps beyond their own lives and in the interest of averting long-term disasters.
According to the essay, if mental enhancement technology is only available to the few, existing class divisions will be strengthened as privilege gets justified by the fact some people are now enhanced while others are not enhanced. The enhanced people would use their so-called superiority, which might simply be faster processing speed in their artificial brains, to claim ever more power and justify inequality and division. Although the above would seem to be the most robust challenge to human enhancement technologies from a Marxist perspective, there are many strong responses to it. For example, enhancement in the true sense simply ought to include boosting ethical performance rather than inhibiting it. A truly enhanced “elite” might be uninterested in claiming any role as the elite (because becoming privileged is the act of someone creating guarantees that he will not be usurped by those possessing greater competence). Surely, the last thing the possession of truly extraordinary skill or competence should lead to is a desire to impose injustice and suffering on people? If it were in any way accurate that enhanced elites would rush to impose injustice, isn’t it equally logical to assume that human vegetables must be put in power to enforce justice? Even this rebuttal bypasses the far more obvious statement that the main point of human enhancement is to improve responses against existential threats, which must include system-wide injustice and the flames of insurrection. To put it simpler, if mental enhancement led to a self-indulgent aristocracy determined to neglect humanity, then mental enhancement would have failed.
Rectenwald’s conclusion is not friendly to transhumanism and singularitarianism. He states that the “Singularitarian movement provides ideological cover for the objectives of an increasingly technocratic ruling elite.” I do not see how he justifies this, as I see no “objectives” or “technocratic ruling elite”. In fact, this sentiment seems to retreat from Marxist theory to conspiracy theory.
Noting the possibility of a “decentralized, open-access info-sphere of exploding intelligence”, which would not play into the hands of current powers, the essay cautions against an alliance between singularitarianism and state power, which it warns can cause emerging technology to “become part of the arsenal for class domination and enhanced imperialism.” This is a point I not only agree with, but already try to disseminate as much as I can in other work. For technology to favor liberation, it must be decoupled from statism and applied in defiance of the norms of the nation-state model, just as the internet is already being used in accord with its own transnational nature. Another point of agreement is in Rectenwald’s conclusion when he argues for “the use of science and technology for the purposes of human emancipation.” From my perspective, elements within transhumanism already favor this use of technology, and see technology as having high potential to liberate and enlighten all.