July 2002
volume 1, issue 1


Writing the Future- Technoscience and theAvant-Garde (continued | 1, 2, 3, 4)


Mind Children and The Age of Spiritual Machines are replete with radical ideas regarding the future of human/ machinic intelligence and life on earth generally. Both suggest that very soon, probably within our lifetimes, computer intelligence will surpass individual human intelligence before quickly surpassing that of the entire race in terms of power and speed. The texts suggest that machines will become autonomous and self-replicating. Both suggest that at a certain point in this process humans will no longer be capable of understanding or interpreting machinic processes and goals.

One of the most radical prescriptions in the above works is for the transcendence of the previously absolute limit of the Utopia genre: that is, the overcoming of the problem of human death. This narrative is carefully constructed to flow forward from a history evidenced by frequent citation of other texts- Within the next fifty years, it goes, human death will become obsolete when computers reach a threshold of capacity and speed for housing human consciousness (in terms of processing power and memory) and, through a process referred to as uploading- a sort of reverse-engineering followed by modeling within the computer- a human mind is transferred to a machinic home. The extreme social implications are obvious as are the eschatological overtones. Further, the timetable for the overcoming of human death through technological means prescribed in The Age of Spiritual Machines and Mind Children covers the next fifty years, which, given likely advances in more prosaic life extension technology, will be enough time to snatch the authors from the jaws of death.

Deterministic predictive apparatus, contemporary physical theory, evolutionary theory, and historical evidence are mobilized throughout the bodies of the texts in an attempt to render this and other radical scenarios plausible. The books are extreme in their prescriptions and mechanistic in their means- at times approaching the reflexivity and solemnity of standard science writing, at times spinning off into science fiction-like conjecture. And this is perhaps the innovation of this group: the conflation of rationalized predictive mechanisms with extreme visionary elements resulting in a hybrid Visionary / Performative genre that actively seeks to transform humanity and prescribe a future for technoscience production.

It is important to note that Theodore Kaczinski’s Unabomer Manifesto functions in this milieu in much the same manner as the reactionary opposition to the historical avant-garde. In fact, his position could be said to represent an intensification of the historical position. His conservatism turned radical, he engaged in his own form of production- in his selection of scientists to target for destruction, his construction and delivery of bombs, and his machinations for the publication of his material. His texts follow a similar chain of reasoning to those of the technoscience advocates and suggest an affinity at the level of historicity as well as projection.

The mobilization of predictive apparatus constitutes huge portions of these texts- like the most strident attempts of avant-gardists from the Futurists to the Suprematists the sheer will to legitimate these ideas appears to become the texts’ driving force. Both the advocates and Kaczinski frequently cite predictive data and concepts ‘proven’ or reinforced by industry and research and development. One commonly cited predictive algorhythm is Moore’s law, which invokes a reversed-L-shaped curve in terms of acceleration of processor speed and miniaturization (commensurate with reduction of cost):

First postulated by former Intel CEO Gordon Moore in the mid-1960’s, Moore’s law is the prediction that the size of each transistor on an integrated circuit chip will be reduced by 50 percent every twenty-four months. The result is the exponentially growing power of integrated circuit-based computation over time. Moore’s Law doubles the number of components on a chip as well as the speed of each component. Both of these aspects double the power of computing, for an effective quadrupling of the power of computation every twenty-four months. - Kurzweil p.306

This law, cited as evidence of predictable exponential expansion of computing power, is used in conjunction with examples detailing computing innovation, charts mapping overall speed of ‘evolution’ of new technologies and projections based on these. In addition to details of highly theoretical yet promising areas of technoscience development, such as in the process the rational and performative are linked to the Visionary and Utopian.

The fusion of these two modes of futurism, historically opposed under the signs of affirmative capital and conservatism on one hand and revolutionary innovation and movement on the other suggests an affirmation of Baudrillard’s position that under the rule of the code (or simulation, here meaning technoscience/ digital technology)- what were polar opposites of the social (left/right, avant-garde/ conservative, affirmative/negative) can be made to co-exist. Precursors to this implosion are apparent throughout the history of technoscience with its mixed genealogy of military-industrial production (the code-breakers and infrastructure-based technological advances of World War 2) and radical social production (Berkeley, Stanford, MIT in the 60’s and 70’s, the Hacker ethic which continues to fuel innovation, the science fiction milieu, and radical technoscience groups like the Extropians and Alcor).

Natural selection and species evolution are invoked to suggest a continuum between human evolution and that of machinic ‘offspring’ (thus the name of Moravec’s book) The hard determinism of the conclusion- the inevitable transcendence of machine intelligence- could be regarded as a radicalization of affirmation and seems to militate against the humanist teleology of most of the classical avant-garde. However, informed by the ascent of poststructuralist and antihumanist thought in academia and the rise of the "posthumanist" or "transhumanist" (constituting a blurring of human and machinic elements, an attempt at synthesis in the face of paranoiac schism) paradigm in tech circles, it has become possible for these writers to assemble a conception of the avant-garde which is closer to a Nietzchean paradigm of willful, radical self-transcendence than to the humanist Utopias of the classical avant-garde as characterized by the Constructivists or Situationists.

The feature that perhaps most validates the characterization of the work of these technoscience producers as "avant-garde" is their advocacy/implementation of a radical transformation of the social. The negative dialectics or critique of affirmative culture practiced by the historical avant-gardes is embodied here as a radical desire for mutation and transcendence of current conditions. Throughout the texts (and perhaps unconsciously), positivist progress is wedded to sacrifices at the level of the human and the social. Concepts of subjective autonomy and privacy are often discarded in the process of enumerating technological breakthroughs and collectivities are dispersed or done away with. ‘Humanity’, including-at the most primary level- the body itself, is willingly discarded for its flaws in the face of machinic performative superiority.

At the level of content, the texts are conflations of what were previously largely distinct genres. They are characterized by their chaotic switching between modes of discourse: sometimes narrative-figurative (with some narratives based on hard-science or predictive data like Moore’s law or natural selection and others based on speculative fictions i.e. Gibson’s cyberspace, the Constructivist Utopia), sometimes abstract-theoretical (as when the authors invoke nanotechnology or Platonic concepts), sometimes pragmatic and mundane (as when the rudimentary physical hurdles encountered by robotics are discussed).


:"Both science and art are discovering and making us aware that of the fact that time is a process of intensification, an evolution from the individual towards the universal, of the subjective towards the objective, towards the essence of things and ourselves." -Piet Mondrian, Plastic Art and Pure Plastic Art

To gain the new artistic culture, art approaches creation as an end in itself and domination over the forms of nature. —Kasimir Malevich

The confluence of technoscience and avant-garde art is not new—the rise of institutionalized technoscience corresponds historically with the ascent of Modernism in culture and the two share conceptual features. At the most basic level, both feature a positivist teleology- a doctrine of progress, a belief in radical innovation, and ultimately, achievement of Utopia- that is increasingly recognized as problematic.

In terms of representation, scientism has existed in avant-garde art practically from the beginning: references to scientific theory abound in the work of the Symbolists, Duchamp, Mondrian, and in the images and texts of the Italian Futurists. At the level of practice, avant-garde art has consistently been described using such phrases as ‘Experimental’, "Laboratory and Proving Ground"- "(These phrases) reveal above all a concept of artistic practice which differs radically from the classical, traditional, and academic one…The images help us to recognize both the kinship between experimentalism and the activist, agonistic, and futurist tendencies and the relations that bind avant-garde culture to modern praxis." — Poggioli, p.

These relations between avant-garde culture and modern praxis are reciprocated on the side of science through the employment of methodologies and processes which often precede evidentiary validation in addition to the metanarratives of experiment and innovation which guide practice. The history of technoscience corresponds to the history of Modernism in both time and structure, however, positivist science has long been at epistemological odds with the avant-garde- where within the sphere of avant garde art, validation is based on affirmation of intangibles like ‘vision’, validation in science is based on empirical evidence. ‘Vision’-an antecedent to science as a component of the alchemical and mystery cults from which it descended, has long been sacrificed to the ruling doctrine of performativity- it is through its conscious reintegration into practices, like those of these authors, that it is being reintegrated into production.

Kurzweil and Moravec’s texts’ reciprocal ties to experimental practice and theory are explicit and decisive- similar to those of the avant-garde. However, unlike practitioners of the avant-garde, these writers- also producers- are in the position to channel research and development, mass production, and-perhaps most importantly- huge resources of capital. Further, these technologists influence legislation and legitimation through access to heads of state and industry (not to mention consumers and the reading public) - Bill Clinton, while president of the U.S., cited Kurzweil on more than one occasion; Bill Gates formed a strategic partnership with him. These factors combined with the unprecedented transformative capabilities of contemporary technoscience, puts these authors in a unique position historically: their ‘genre’ can be said to deviate radically from the norm of scientific futurism- being closer in intent to that of the artistic avant garde but differ from it significantly- in stated ends as well as in means of production and level of influence.

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