Monday, August 29, 2016

The trouble with Oomza

I just read Okorafor's remarkable novella "Binti" that recently won the 2016 Hugo award (scruffy and rabid puppies of all kinds notwithstanding). The main character is a young student, on her way to the Famous University, half a galaxy across, where she's just been admitted to pursue her graduate studies in Mathematics, the first of her people ever being offered a graduate fellowship at this international (interplanetary, intergalactic) center of learning, the famous Oomza University. Her people, the Himba, are a discriminated minority treated with contempt and belittled by the dominant ethnicity of her home planet, the Khoush. The setting of Binti's home planet, sketched in colorful brush strokes, hints at both ethnic tensions between different ethnic groups in sub saharan Africa, with the never explicitly mentioned but always looming threat of genocidal war, and also, on another level, it seems to refer to the tensions between the privileged white American community and the African American, so dramatically underrepresented in the high echelon of academic prestige. The story begins with Binti leaving in the middle of the night to the spaceport where she will be boarding the starship to Oomza. She is leaving in secret, without the consent of her family, violating the expectations of her society. She is afraid and alone. She is closing a door behind her back, burning her bridges, leaving her whole world behind. She knows it is quite possible, maybe even very probable, that she will never go back. Never come home again. Home, even that may soon cease to make sense as a concept. This opening scene is dramatic and so well crafted: anyone who has been that student, leaving everything to move half the world across to some Famous University, perhaps not in secret in the dead of night, but certainly not without tension with family and environment, immediately relates fully and completely with every nuance of her many fluctuations between hesitation and boldness. Okorafor hinges on those details that relate to Binti's cherished habits of life: certain ways of dressing, certain ways of covering her hair and skin with red clay. One understands immediately how such gestures with symbolic meaning, which are largely aimed at signifying a sense of belonging to a community, a shared environment where such things indeed carry a meaning, will be the first victims of the kind of drastic uprooting she is about to embark into. None of her shared heritage will signify anything in her new environment, and perhaps that is a necessary and maybe even desirable loss, at some level, but still one that contributes to create an enormous vulnerability and dramatically increases the overall sense of alienation and isolation that inevitably accompanies this type of transition. A good part of the novella, where all the action takes place, deals with the voyage to Oomza, where the starship is attacked by a warring race of Medusas who kill every other human on board, except for Binti who is protected by an ancient artifact she found in the desert of her home planet, without knowing its meaning and origin, and that she took along with her as a talisman. The artifact not only defends her from the Medusas assaults, by emanating energy beams that hurt their tentacles when they get too close, but it also allows her to communicate with the Medusas, by acting as a translator machine. Here the story becomes quite predictable: the Medusas are not the horrible monsters they seem to be at first; they are good guys afraid of humans, whose honor has been wounded by the stealing of their chief's stinger that is kept on display in a museum on Oomza. Binti promises to help them get back their stinger and their honor, while befriending an impulsive but ultimately cool Medusa guy named Okwu, who will become her buddy by the end of the story. OK, I must admit that, while I think this is an excellent sci-fi story, I am not so terribly fond of all this "honor of the Medusa" business. The story gets quite interesting again, from my own personal point of view at least, when they finally get down to the Oomza campus, where Binti successfully carries out her promised duty to help the Medusa with their stinger quest. The structure of Oomza is only hinted at, just as the social structure of Binti's home planet was described more in allusions than in overt details, but a few interesting characteristics immediately emerge: (1) the faculty of Oomza is extremely cosmopolitan (as appropriate for a university of cosmic reputation) with representatives from many different alien races; while the members of the faculty council Binti interacts with while advocating the Medusas cause appear aloof and somewhat unsociable, they are ultimately open minded and progressive; (2) a good part of this Famous University is dedicated to carrying out weapons research, so the enlightened attitude of the faculty members does not stretch as far as rejecting their alliance to the galactic military-industrial complex; (3) Binti has changed already, physically as well as mentally, because of her direct contact with the Medusas, and it is questioned whether she could still belong to her home planet and her people and be accepted by them. Interestingly, the novel is silent on this last issue and leaves it hanging, with the final scene ending just at the moment when Binti tries to re-establish contact, remotely, with her family on her home planet. We can only imagine whether we want that attempt to lead to a reconciliation or to an ultimate uprooting and rejection. I am inclined to believe the latter is more realistic: she no longer belongs to her home planet and she never will again. Well, this is just personal experience: she is a different person, in a different world, with very different experiences. There is no going home. There is no home. What about Oomza? The novella also leaves that to the reader's imagination, although it seems that a sequel is announced to be published sometime in 2017. Well, since the sequel isn't out yet, we are still free to speculate, and to use the freedom so kindly bestowed upon the readers by the author, to keep the story going from the point where it ends, somewhat abruptly, in her narration. So how is Binti doing at Oomza? She is received with great honor, given her brilliant solution of the Medusa problem. So it appears she is valued and respected. Is that really so? Other students who have, long ago, journeyed to the Famous University half a world across had also been received with great enthusiasm, yet things soured very quickly. Binti is known in her own world as a master maker of astrolabes. The astrolabes of Okorafor's story are both beautiful art objects and functioning computer like devices, upon which a great deal of civilization evidently depends. This means that Binti has a talent that is highly respected in her home world, despite the fact that she belongs to a discriminated ethnic community. This point in the story is very interesting: Okorafor describes very well a paradox by which a minority group is considered at the same time highly talented and yet somehow despicable by a privileged and racist majority. This appears to be a clear hint to the tragic anti-semitic discrimination against Jews in European history. Once again, there is an unspoken but clearly recognizable threat of genocidal violence behind this combination of fear and loathing. Interestingly, while ethnic and racial discriminations form an important subtext throughout the novella, the galactic civilization Binti belongs to appears to be remarkably free of gender discrimination, and Binti seems to suffer no ill effect for being a woman mathematician. I guess that's some kind of progress, if one can call it so: well, one less prejudice is surely better than one more, but that's a meagre consolation when painted over a general background of racial and ethnic tensions. Coming back to the astrolabes, Binti has a highly regarded technical skill that she developed on her home planet, and that was directly influential, we are told, in her getting admitted to Oomza. One point to consider here is the implicit assumption that her mathematical skills are, in her society, closely tied up to the realization of technical objects (the astrolabes) that are highly coveted by society. It is a bit like an appreciation of mathematics, in our society, based largely on its potential of application to computer science. Well, oh right. So Binti is admitted to Oomza because of her mathematical talent and her reputation built out of her previous studies and experience on her home planet. How is this going to play out once she is actually at Oomza? I am again inclined to give a very pessimistic view here: the young student who happily travelled to the Famous University across the known world on the premise that her talent and experience will be valued and appreciated finds her experience immediately invalidated and denied upon her arrival. Why? Because of course Famous University, in order to assert and maintain its power and image, has to deny the validity of anything which is not Famous University. So whatever talent was highly appreciated a moment ago when selecting students for admission is immediately trashed as worthless as soon as the students get actually there, because whatever knowledge they have refined over the years was not coming from Famous University and therefore it is by definition worthless. I am unfortunately inclined to believe that this is what will happen, shortly after the point where the narration of the novella ends, to Binti and her astrolabes. How will she put up with that, when that denial of her entire history and knowledge happens at the same time as she is coming to terms with her no longer having a home world and a home community? At the same time while she is struggling with racial discrimination? I do not belong to a discriminated ethnic minority, but I do live in a world where being a woman mathematician carries a series of problems that do not seem to play a role in Binti's universe. I am not sure whether this constitutes in some sense a similar experience. However, I certainly know the effect of the two pronged fork of rejection of both inner and outer world being simultaneously played out. If the promised sequel to "Binti" is going to be in any way realistic in this respect, it is going to be grim. What else can we say about Oomza? The Famous University I am talking about is also founded on the history of military-industrial complex, down to the basement foundations where my graduate student office used to be, in the still radioactive rooms that housed the Fermi nuclear pile in the early days of the Manhattan project. The great enlightened, cosmopolitan faculty of the great Mathematics Department of the Famous University are not only aloof and somewhat unsociable, but their progressive vision stops at some high sounding public declarations that hide a great deal of Machiavellian double speak. Take the enlightened faculty member turned skillful administrator who recently proffered deep wisdom such as "The purpose of a university education is to provide the critical pathway by which students can fulfill their potential, change the trajectory of their families, and build healthier and more inclusive societies". Wow, who would disagree with that? And what about "Essential to this process is an environment that promotes free expression and the open exchange of ideas, ensuring that difficult questions are asked and that diverse and challenging perspectives are considered". Again, who could even for a moment consider not being on the same boat with this? Only some kind of inconsiderate authoritarian censorship prone individuals (or "groups" as they are referred to in this well crafted speech) who "assert that universities should be refuges from intellectual discomfort". Ah, here it comes: "intellectual discomfort", what kind of "discomfort" are we talking about, here and in what sense is this discomfort "intellectual"? This guy is more intelligent (he's a distinguished mathematician after all) and more articulate than his subordinate who sends letters out to incoming freshmen, so he steers clear of using buzz words loaded with all kinds of interpretations, such as "safe spaces", but his intervention comes right on the heels of much less carefully worded statements issuing from some steps down the chain of command. Is it so frightening to these enlightened intellectuals to imagine the possible existence of spaces on campus that can offer help and support to students who come from the whole world across, having left everything behind, welcomed by the most chilling denial of their whole existence (even without the help of any considerate dean's letter)? Is it a threat to free speech? How so? Is this a Machiavellian maneuver by Administration to actually undermine academic freedom and faculty initiative, while at the same time pleasing conservative donors? Most likely. The pretense of defense of a culture of intellectual openness on campus is risible: the only advice I can give to the students who wish to enjoy the Famous University's "defining characteristics", their "commitment to freedom of inquiry and expression" is to graduate as fast as they can and move on to some other place where such things exist. I am eagerly waiting for Okorafor's sequel of "Binti": I do hope that the Oomza version of Famous University will turn out to be less grim and more open than this other Famous University.

Oomza University and the Medusas... oomz, no... this is that other Famous University, my dear Alma Mater

Monday, August 15, 2016

Who counts as a futurist? Whose future counts?

A shorter version of this text appeared as a guest post on the Mathbabe blog.

For a good part of the past century the term "futurism" conjured up the image of a revolutionary artistic and cultural movement that flourished in Russia and Italy in the first two decades of the century. In more recent times and across the Atlantic, it has acquired a different connotation, one related to speculative thought about the future of advanced technology. In this later form, it is often explicitly associated to the speculations of a group of Silicon Valley tycoons and their acolytes. Their musings revolve around a number of themes: technological immortality in the form of digital uploading of human consciousness, space colonization, and the threat of an emergent superintelligent AI. It is easy to laugh off all these ideas as the typical preoccupations of a group of aging narcissist wealthy white males, whose greatest fear is that an artificial intelligence may one day treat them the way they have been treating everybody else all along. However, in fact none of these themes of "futurist speculation" originates in Silicon Valley: all of them have been closely intertwined in history and date back to the original Russian Futurism, and the related Cosmist movement, where mystics like Fedorov alternated with scientists like Tsiolkovsky (the godfather of the Soviet space program) envisioning a future where science and technology would "storm the heavens and vanquish death". The crucial difference in these forms of futurism does not lie in the themes of speculation, but rather in the role of humanity in this envisioned future. Is this the future of a wealthy elite? Is this the future of a classless society?

Konstantin Yuon, "A new Planet", 1921

Fast forward to our time again, there are still widely different versions of "futurism" and not all of them are a capitalist protectorate. Indeed, there is a whole widely developed Anarchist Futurism (usually referred to as Anarcho-Transhumanism) which is anti-capitalist but very pro-science and technology. It has its roots in many historical predecessors: the Russian Futurism and Cosmism, naturally, but also the revolutionary brand of the Cybernetic movement(Stafford Beer, etc.), cultural and artistic movements like Afrofuturismand Solarpunk, Cyberfeminism (starting with Donna Haraway's Cyborg Manifesto), and more recently Xenofeminism. What some of the main themes of futurism look like in the anarchist lamelight is quite different from their capitalist shadow.

"Morphological Freedom" is one of the main themes of anarchist transhumanism: it means the freedom to modify one's own body with means provided by science and technology, but whereas in the capitalist version of transhumanism this gets immediately associated to Hollywood-style enhanced botox therapies for those incapable of coming to terms with their natural aging process, in the anarchist version the primary model of morphological freedom is the transgender rights, the freedom to modify one's own sexual and gender identity.

It also involves a fight against ableism, in as there is nothing especially ideal about the (young, muscular, male, white, healthy) human body. The Vitruvian Man, which was the very symbol of Humanism, was also a symbol of the intrinsically exclusionary nature of Humanism. Posthumanism and Transhumanism are also primarily an inclusionary process that explodes the exclusionary walls of Humanism, without negating its important values. The fact that Posthumanism and Transhumanism have moved beyond the Humanism tradition originating in Renaissance Humanism does not mean rejecting Humanism entirely: some of its basic foundations are also at the basis of both Anarchism (which is in essence a humanist philosophy) and Trans/Posthumanism. For example, one of the most important contributions of Humanism was replacing religious thinking, as a basis for ethical values, with a vision of ethics grounded in human rights. Accepting that we live in a world of natural phenomena, approached through science and reason, is a fundamental basis of Humanism as a philosophy and it remains fundamental to both Anarchism and Transhumanism. An example of Morphological Freedom against ableism is found in the rethinking of the notion of prosthetics. The traditional approach aims at constructing artificial limbs that as much as possible resemble the human limbs. Implicitly, this involves declaring the users of prosthetics as being in some way "defective", lacking an aspect of their "intact" human ideal form. However, when children are given the possibility to design and 3D print their own prosthetics, they make colorful arms that launch darts and flying saucers and that make them look like superheroes, and professional designers have realized that prosthetic arms that do not imitate a human arm, but that work like an octopus tentacle can be more efficient than most traditional prosthetics. Abandoning the notion of an ideal human form allows for the freedom to create better forms. These are just a couple of simple examples of how prejudice prevents us from making a better use of technology. Anarcho-Transhumanism not only values a diverse and non-ableist approach to the body form, but it protects and values the importance of Neuro-diversity.

The mathematical theory of networks and of complex systems and emergent behavior can be used to make protests and social movements more efficient and successful. Sousveillance and anti-surveillance techniques can help protecting people from police brutality. Hacker and biohacker spaces help spreading scientific literacy and directly involve people in advanced science and technology: the growing community of DIY synthetic biologywith biohacker spaces like CounterCulture Labs, has been one of the most successful grassroot initiatives involving advanced science. These are all important aspects and components of the anarchist transhumanist movement.
Needless to say, the community of people involved in Anarcho-Tranhumanism is a lot more diverse than the typical community of Silicon Valley futurists.
Anarchism itself comes in many different forms, anarcho-communism, anarcho-syndacalism, mutualism, etc. (no, not anarcho-capitalism, that is an oxymoron not a political movement!) but at heart it is an ethical philosophy aimed at increasing people's agency (and more generally the agency of any sentient being), based on empathy, cooperation, mutual aid. Science and technology have enormous potential, if used inclusively and for the benefit of all and not with goals of profit and exploitation.

For people interested in finding out more about Anarcho-Tranhumanism there is an Anarcho-Transhumanist Manifesto currenly being written (which is still very much in the making). There is also an Anarcho-Transhumanism Facebook page, which posts on a range of topics including anarchist theory, philosophy, transhumanism and posthumanism and their historical roots, and various thoughts on science and technology and their transformative role.

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

The Invisible Pachyderm: Ageism in Science and in Radical Communities

There is a big Elephant in the Room, a large old pachyderm nobody is willing to see. Certain widespread prejudices that have been entrenched in the scientific community since time immemorial have come under the spotlight in recent years (primarily sexism and racism, and to a much lesser extend ableism). This certainly does not mean they have been eliminated, far from it, but at least a certain degree of awareness has started to circulate within the community, and some attempts (largely inadequate) at addressing the problems have at least taken place, sometimes, somewhere. On the other hand, radical communities, by which I generically mean variously organized groups that self-identify with radical politics (I will mostly focus on anarchist communities for the purpose of the discussion here), have made it a part of their platform from the beginning to fight against these old prejudices, seen as oppressive power structures. Yet in both communities the same large invisible pachyderm is roaming the room unhindered and entirely unnoticed: the elephant of Ageism.
(Banksy, Elephant in the Room, 2006)

Let me start with the scientific community, and let me focus in particular on the community of mathematicians, because that is where Ageism is most brutal and barbaric. Mathematics is a beautiful and highly rewarding intellectual activity, with its own intrinsic beauty and poetics. However, this is not how it is perceived by a part of its practitioners. I am not talking here about how the general public perceives mathematics, the global catastrophe of the "oh, I never liked math in school" type, the global catastrophe of school in general. I am talking about professional mathematicians and how they relate to their own creativity. There is an unfortunate widespread tendency to view mathematics as a form of gymnastics, that is inculcated into promising young people at an early age through other global catastrophes like the mathematical olympiads and various similar competitions, which perpetuate an ideological view of mathematics as a competition sport, rather than as a creative intellectual activity. The rhetoric implicit in this view and the language employed is akin to the fascist mythology of the muscular body (adopted by stalinists with equally zealous fervor), forcibly imposed upon an intellectual pursuit, where it really should not belong.

Of course, there is a significant gap between the mathematical competitions for young kids and the actual work of a research mathematician: not all good early mathematical gymnasts become professional mathematicians and certainly a large part of the most prominent professional mathematicians had nothing to do with the circus of mathematical gymnastics in their early years. However, there is enough overlap that traces linger. There have been long (and usually not very interesting) discussions in the mathematical community on the distinction between mathematicians who are problem solvers or theory builders (sounding suspiciously like body builders). Of course these are both distinct aspects of mathematical creativity, and different creative persons express themselves in different styles. Not all novelists or poets write in the same way, not all painters or musicians compose in the same style. There are many other distinct aspects in mathematical creativity, however, and I believe that's not where the focus should be. The problem the rhetoric of muscular mathematics generates in the community is best exemplified by the typical question you hear professionals ask to and of each other: "what is the hardest theorem you've proved?". It's never "what is the most beautiful structure you have discovered?" or "what is the most surprising unexpected connection you have uncovered between seemingly unrelated mathematical phenomena?": after all these are some of the most exciting things that happen in mathematical research... but no, it is only the "hardest" (turgid?) that matters. Why? Well, because problems gain notoriety not necessarily because of their intrinsic beauty, or their wide applicability, but a lot more easily because some other big-muscle-dude tried to solve them before and couldn't: enough of a line of big-muscle dudes, and there's your famous problem. The next even muscular dude that comes along and solves it wins all. All right, now imagine for a moment if music, art, and literature were running along the same principles, what an awful disaster for humankind that would be! So where does Ageism enter this picture? Naturally, once the emphasis is on mathematics as a thinly disguised metaphor of the muscular (male) body, this casts it immediately into an Ableist and Ageist frame. There comes the absurd mythology, repeated like an obsessive mantra in the community, of the "mathematicians can only do their best work before the age of forty", as if they would be some kind of cinderella whose carriage of mathematical knowledge turns magically into a pumpkin at the stroke of their fortieth year. You are offered the pathetic spectacle of endless hiring committees made of mathematicians, debating on whether that thirty year old candidate may be too old for that full professor position: yes, in principle discrimination on the basis of age is not allowed, but where is that principle hiding? I never saw it getting into the room. Imagine for a moment if a similar discussion would take place in a hiring committee with age replaced by race or gender, how would that sound then? You can also observe the even more depressing case of that famous mathematician who is now 90 (a friend, no names, sorry) who established himself as one of the best mathematicians of the 20th century and still feels under enormous stress and pressure to prove himself by attacking some of these fucked up "big problem" (big, hard, turgid, whatever) to defend himself against the all encompassing Ageist prejudice. Mathematics as a war of all against all, relentless and meaningless. A landscape where one should see beauty, pleasure, and enjoyment reduced to a scorched earth. It drives me to tears just to be forced to witness all this. Ageism in mathematics (the rest of science is not off the hook: this is just the worst case example) is widespread, tolerated, indulged in, and largely actively encouraged.

Things get even creepier when we move from science to the fringe of science, that area in between science and fiction (or, better still, in between science and market baloney) that is largely populated by the wealthy Silicon Valley capitalist sharks. There the fascist mythology of the young and muscular body is overt and explicit in the obsession for the magical potion of eternal youth, developed courtesy of the technological singularity no less, and restricted for the use of a selected wealthy elite of aging narcissistic white males who are structurally unable to come to terms with their own mortality. This may sound like a strange statement coming from a person like myself, who generally sympathizes with Transhumanist ideas and is largely involved in the anarchist version of the Transhumanism movement (I'll come to anarchism soon). However, the version of Transhumanism I sympathize with primarily advocates an aggressive and fast developing version of what modern medicine has been doing all along, namely the improvement of the quality and extension of human life through whatever means science and technology can provide, and equal access, for all humankind, to the benefits of advanced technological innovation. This is a far cry from the elitist pseudo-religious resurrectionist fantasies dressed up in techno-scientific language that populate the fascist leaning fringe of Transhumanism.

It is important not to conflate, in this discussion, the problems of Ageism and Ableism, although they frequently manifest themselves together, especially when the aging process also involves some loss of physical ability. I prefer to focus here only on the prejudice related to age itself, because that is indeed the elephant in the room that is hardly ever confronted. This is the prejudice that assigns a lesser ability, capacity, or a lesser value, to an older person. Most people (like good wine) improve with age. They tend to become more interesting, more knowledgable, more sensitive, less violent, less aggressive, less prejudiced, and generally better human beings when they get older. So why is this generally not valued and not even acknowledged, even if it is under everybody's eyes? In the case I discussed above, of the dynamics within the scientific (and specifically mathematical) community, the main reason seems to be that aggression, violence, prejudice, and insensitivity are the qualities that are implicitly valued, hence their general decrease with age is regarded as a loss of value, not as an improvement. In the case of fringe-transhumanities, an irrational fear of human mortality appears to be the motor behind the profoundly Ageist stance, combined with the narcissist ideal of consumerist young-looking Hollywood-style bodies. It was a long process in the history of humanity to get rid of the religious fantasies of eternal afterlives and embrace the value and importance of human mortality. This does not mean, of course, that we should not struggle to extend and improve human life with all the current means and the wonderful future possibilities that science provides. It means recognizing that "immortality" per se is not just a physical impossibility like perpetual motion (the second law of thermodynamics, anyone?) but also a childish fantasy. "Fighting old age" is a horrible expression that should be banned from the transhumanist vocabulary: fighting illness and improving and extending human life, sure. Aging, however, is an important process that makes better people. Fighting the better part of ourselves will be hardly an improvement on the human condition.


This brings us to the radical anarchist milieu. With all its dedicated fights against all forms of oppression in society and in interpersonal relations, with its ideal basis in the human capacity for empathy and mutual aid, it is still unfortunately marred by an enormous widespread and overt Ageist discourse. Inevitably, when young people see themselves as revolutionaries, they want to overthrow "the old" (the terminology used in the language is already telling) in favor of "the new" (but read also "the young"). Revolutionaries necessarily look more towards the future than towards the past, or so they are inclined to think. However, there is no Revolution without memory, and preserving the memory of the past is a crucial part of building the future (from the memories of the people who fought in the anti-fascist resistance and the Spanish Civil War, to all the people who experimented at building a better world in the past generations). Maintaining a multigenerational connection is crucial to any radical movement. It is not just this, however. Even in the setting of radical communities there are widespread mythologies that need to be debunked. One of the most dangerous myths is the idea that older people are necessarily (or at least prevalently) conservative. Certainly, if one looks for example at the situation in the US, it is true that the constituency of older white males is overwhelmingly conservative compared to any other population in the society. However, the people who belong now to that constituency grew up in an environment like 1950s America where young white males were extremely likely to be already very conservative. The old conservatives of today where the young conservatives of yesteryear. The old racists of today were the same young racists of the times when lynchings took place on a regular basis. The myth that young revolutionaries turn into older conservatives is just that, a myth. Young revolutionaries turn into older (and perhaps more experiences and wiser) revolutionaries. There is nothing intrinsically conservative about older people, like there is nothing intrinsically revolutionary about younger people. There is people and there are life experiences, and there is intellectual understanding, both of which have very good chances of improving along with the aging process. The role of young and very young people is crucial to any radical revolutionary movement, and so is the role of old and very old people. Any radical community that is not seriously age-inclusive is not truly radical.