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Transhumanist Media: The Transhumanist Wager June 9, 2013

Posted by Metabiological in Social Media, Transhumanism.
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The Transhumanist Wager reads like Atlas Shrugged, if Ayn Rand had been a transhumanist and not as good a writer. Let that sink into your mind for a moment.  I just compared Ayn Rand’s writing ability favorably to another author’s.  That’s usually not a good sign, but here it proves to be the least of this book’s problems.

With my summary of the book’s quality already complete, allow me to back up a bit.  The Transhumanist Wager, written by Zoltan Istvan, first came to my attention several weeks ago.  I heard through the grape vine that a new book had been released with transhumanism as it’s central theme and that it was getting a surprising amount of press.  This in and of itself wasn’t big news since transhumanism has already been used as theme in several other works of much higher profile (e.g. the Deus Ex Series or Dan Brown’s new book Inferno).  But the word of mouth was that this was less a book and more of a rallying cry, a declaration of war on the forces of the Luddite status quo which, in retrospect, is not unlike the one the main character gives at the end of the book.  That and the fact that it was on sale for 99 cents on Amazon made me decide to give it a try.

The Transhumanist Wager belongs to the long, though not necessarily distinguished, genre known as utopian fiction.  Though it has never been more than a niche genre, most of us can probably name a few titles.  Atlas Shrugged, Ecotopia, Looking Backwards are some of the more notable examples.  What unites all utopian fiction is that the main purpose of the narrative is not so much to present a compelling story but to serve as the frame work for  philosophical argument, usually a defense of the authors idea of an ideal society.  Unfortunately, what that often results in is a weak and scattershot narrative with characters who aren’t so much characters as they are plot devices.  Sadly, this book did not buck that trend.

Let’s get this out of the way early; this is a bad book.  The prose is awful and the dialogue does not sound like any human being I have ever heard speak.  The characters fall into two groups; noble, brilliant and at times impossibly virtuous good guys, and black hat evil or incompetent bad guys who are only there to serve as metaphorical punching bags for the book’s philosophical opponents.   The only character who moves beyond the one dimensional is the protagonist, and that’s primarily due to the fact that he’s little more than an author insert.  Nobody undergoes a character arc, their motivations (for those who have them) are usually dealt with in the space of a couple paragraphs, and the book’s message is about as subtle as a sledgehammer to the face.

And you know what, I could have forgiven all of that.  After all, wooden dialogue and one dimensional author inserts are sort part and parcel with utopian fiction.  When the point of your story is to set forth a defense of your philosophy it’s not hard to see why little things like plot and characterization often fall by the wayside.  What this means is that I could have overlooked the rather amateurish writing had the philosophy been an interesting or well-defended one.  Instead, well…

I suppose now is as good a time as any to summarize the plot.  The story shifts between the perspectives of several characters but the protagonist is a young philosophy student by the name of Jethro Knight (feel free to laugh at that name, I sure as hell did).  A staunch and passionate transhumanist, he is disgusted both by the Luddite tendencies he sees in so many of his peers and the timidity within the contemporary transhumanist movement.  The story begins with him sailing around the world, ostensibly due to his career as a journalist but mainly as a sort vision quest to flesh out his own personal philosophy.  Along the way he meet his future wife, a woman by the name of Zoe Bach who like most females in this genre exists only to die around halfway through and fulfill her one purpose by giving the hero a cause to fight for.  Oh don’t look at me like that, that wasn’t a spoiler.  If you don’t see her death coming a mile away you don’t read enough books.  In addition, Jethro tangles with the various antagonistic forces and men, including a cartoonishly evil preacher who reads like Jerry Falwel by way of Joseph Goerbels, who will stop at nothing to thwart his quest for immortality.

Transhumanism therefore forms the central conflict of the story, and don’t worry about forgetting that because he uses that word every other paragraph just to remind you, along with every variation of it.  Transhuman, transhumanity, Transhumania, transhumanicide (no, really).  As I said, subtlety isn’t exactly in his vocabulary.  What’s more interesting is what form Jethro’s particular brand of transhumanism takes.  At first he seems like an early nineties Extropian, with his libertarian leanings and constant talk about the omnipotender, the hypothetical being we should all be striving to be.  The omnipotender is a person who seeks power for themselves, as much power as possible, to achieve immortality and perpetuate their existence forever.  What of everyone else in the world, you ask?  What place do they have?  As Jethro so delicately puts it in his multi-page rant near the end, “If you don’t add value to our lives, we’ll destroy you.” (paraphrased, but that is the jist of it)

I didn’t make that Ayn Rand comparison earlier lightly.  Between the hyper-individualism, Jethro’s interminably long radio address to the world explaining  his philosophy, and even the floating city he constructs half-way through the book to serve as his own personal Galt’s Gulch, The Transhumanist Wager really comes across like an attempt to create Atlas Shrugged for the transhumanist movement. But you know, funny thing.  By the time Jethros’ pre-Bioshock Rapture is up and running and the war with humanity has been decisively won, the world he’s created has lost any resemblance it might have had with what usually passes for libertarian transhumanism.  Instead, what we’re left with is a corporate state which restricts freedom of speech, pay’s lip service to the free market while actively determining what business can make and how they can advertise, and uses an army of robotic minions to crush any and all dissent.  Like most utopian dreamers, what Jethro delivered was quite different from what he advertised.

So what effect will this book ultimately have?  It’s clear from the authors own statements that he envisions his book as a way to both guide bright young men and women into the sciences, and to plant the seeds of the transhumanist revolution in the fertile soil that is the undergraduate’s mind.  As you might be able to guess, I don’t see that happening.  While it is nice to see transhuman philosophy presented in a positive light, in opposition to the countless examples of the opposite, it is deeply disturbing that for many people said philosophy will now be associated with a book who’s central theme is “The future is coming.  Join us or die.”

Time To Give Online Education A Try August 12, 2012

Posted by Metabiological in Social Media.
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So I have just signed up for my first class in the growing world of online education.  You’ve probably heard of this before; universities offering their classes for free online to anyone who wants to sign up.  Depending on who you talk to it’s been touted as either the next great revolution in education, the death knell of traditional universities or both.  Personally I like the idea and at the very least I think it has the potential to drastically change the face of undergraduate education though I stop short of saying it will end the need for so-called “brick and mortar” institutions.  Anyone who’s been to grad school knows that classes are relatively unimportant.

Still it’s an innovative idea worthy of being tried so I decided to do just that.  I have signed up for a course in Astrobiology, created by the University of Edinburgh, through a company called Coursera.  Though a for-profit company Coursera is currently keeping all it’s classes for free and sounds like it intends to do so in the future as well.  How they intend to make money is a question I leave to them though I’m skeptical they’ll be able to turn a profit using the advertising based method most other free online services use.

The class itself is 5 weeks long and doesn’t start till January 2013, which is a little odd if you ask me.  If we’re going to use the convenience of the internet to bring higher education to the masses then keeping classes at certain times rather than allowing people to use them whenever they want strikes me as not making the best use of the technology, especially for science based classes where most of the grading is seemingly done by computer.  Regardless I won’t be able to say anything about the service for several months so what can I say given what I’ve seen so far?

Well the first thing I noticed is that the class selection is currently rather poor.  Coursera actually seems to be ahead of the curve in the department with over 100 courses, other companies I checked didn’t even break double digits, but it’s hard not to compare that to the thousands of courses offered by traditional universities.  In addition the courses themselves are all concentrated in only a few disciplines (mostly science and engineering) and seem to be generally lower level, introductory fare.

I apologize if that sounds overly negative because it really shouldn’t.  Online education of this type is still in its infancy and it’s to be expected that it currently doesn’t offer the breadth of a traditional education, not to mention that anyone taking these courses courses to qualify for a job probably won’t bemoan the lack of humanities classes.  In addition the focus on lower level courses is probably a good idea since the target audience for a lot of these companies seems to be those who can’t afford or can’t get access to traditional education and thus are likely starting at the bottom.

A final note on accreditation.  Currently none of these services (to my knowledge) are accredited and as such do not confer university credit.  They do however offer certificates of completion which from the little I’ve read seem to be well-regarded by potential employers.  It’s not quite a bachelors degree but if all you need is the equivalent of a community college certificate then it will probably be enough.  Whether accreditation follows in the future remains to be seen.