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Augments, straw-men and techno-optimism
Over the past couple of days I've been reading Nexus by Ramez Naam. I'm enjoying parts of it but others...not so much. The parts I'm not liking have provoked me to post this because I feel they are things that can be seen in a lot of transhumanist discussion and media, even in OA to an extent.

The story of Nexus takes place in a typical near future transhumanist setting: human augmentation is possible, AI seems imminent along with uploading and there is a conflict between the pro-transhumanists and the anti. The conflict is so strong in the book that there's a global ban on human enhancement (which some countries unofficially break) owing to a couple of famous bioterrorist events and a tendency for criminal networks to exploit the technologies. An example of the latter is a virus that can when administered to someone makes them do whatever you want. The backlash against this is so strong that in the US a new enforcement agency is created specifically for it that has the power to strip anyone of all their rights and do whatever they want to them, apparently with no oversight.

I don't want to spoil things but it's this conflict that I take issue with. Naam touches on some very legitimate concerns were this technology to be available, concerns of abuse by criminal elements and government agencies (no one else though perhaps tellingly) but he writes in such a way that makes the anti characters seem completely stupid. Indeed the key argument that all the anti characters have is that it would stop people being human, they never explain that or justify it just repeat it. All the pro people are written as being incredibly intelligent and popular, mostly scientists and all espousing noble views of a brighter future. There's one rather cringey scene where a beautiful, charismatic, super intelligent scientist is publicly arguing with a stammering politician about how the laws are a problem. All the politician can say is "well 100 politicians agreed to keeps us human...if you were in my country you'd be in jail for saying that". A lot of the book is like that making Naam's position as subtle as a brick.

I've seen this in many other books and a few games too. The anti side is always written as having a very simplistic/childish argument. Personally not only do I find this boring I find it massively disingenuous. There are serious questions that would have to be addressed surrounding this technology and it won't be as black and white as "all the intelligent people believe it should be completely allowed for progress, all the stupid people believe it should be completely banned to stay human". One problem to be address would be choice; in a capitalist system could people really choose not to augment if doing so makes them less likely to get a job and keep it? How should issues of abuse be dealt with? What other regulation is needed.

Building on that I'll get to my last point (then stop rambling), that of techno-optimism. In Nexus and others transhumanist technologies just work, pretty much first time. There's often lip-service to development (Nexus starts with a DNI app being debugged) but there's never any major consequences to failure and it's all brushed over (actually there is one character who may get cancer one day due to government mishap with enhancements but there's little else). In reality plenty of major technologies (biotech and computing especially) have a lot of problems in early builds. Just look at how much software has to be patched for years after release and how many medicines have unexpected, potentially fatal, side effects not only in late clinical trials but years after use. In reality human augmentation technologies whether they be physical or mental are going to have to have a lot of failures on the path to success, and that's going to mean lives ruined.

This has been a bit of a rant, mainly I'm interested to see if any one else has noticed this or disagrees. Or even better, knows examples of fiction that take a more nuanced look at the issue. I read echopraxia recently and that raised plenty of interesting points about how staying competitive (in a capitalist society) can be dangerous. Specifically it mentioned the problem that the most competitive/advanced people were the ones that embraced Beta-level technologies that weren't ready for full release but gave them an edge over those using last generations. Problem is Beta is buggy and that can lead to some harrowing and fatal accidents.

EDIT: Linking this back to OA a bit, our early tech timeline I've always felt is very optimistic. This is come up a few times before, particularly regarding genetic engineering technologies that seemingly come out of nowhere and create new healthy species in very little time. In terms of the early setting I think that we should take a look at introducing some fairly reasonable examples of bad outcomes to balance the good.
OA Wish list:
  1. DNI
  2. Internal medical system
  3. A dormbot, because domestic chores suck!

Messages In This Thread
Augments, straw-men and techno-optimism - by Rynn - 05-16-2015, 01:07 AM
RE: Augments, OT - by quakfusion - 06-01-2015, 01:12 PM

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