'Peter Watts is an Angry Sentient Tumor' (2019)
Eleven years after the birth of the most neurologically remarkable, philosophically mind-blowing, transhumanistically-relevant being on the planet, we have nothing but pop-sci puff pieces and squishy documentaries to show for it. Are we really supposed to believe that in over a decade no one has done the studies, collected the data, gained any insights about literal brain-to-brain communication, beyond these fuzzy generalities?
I for one don’t buy that for a second. These neuroscientists smiling at us from the screen—Douglas Cochrane, Juliette Hukin—they know what they’ve got. Maybe they’ve discovered something so horrific about the nature of Humanity that they’re afraid to reveal it, for fear of outrage and widespread panic. That would be cool.
Selected blogposts from a thoughtful doomer. Name a hot button, anything, and Watts will elevate it to the scariest thing in the world: internet surveillance, zoonotic viruses, climate change, Trump, the security detail around the G8.
There’s much to like: his bloody-minded sympathy, Left nihilism, boundless sensawunda, viscera instead of prose - and but deep unreliability when he gets on a subject besides marine biology. He is vulnerable to anything cool or fucked up. I worry if I find myself agreeing with him, since he so often misleads himself.
If I am indeed fated to sink into this pit of surveillance capitalism with the rest of you, I’d just as soon limit my fantasies about eating the rich to a venue that doesn’t shut you down the moment some community-standards algo thinks it sees an exposed nipple in a jpeg.
Everything he does is excessive. Of course, this makes for good aesthetics and bad epistemics.
Like Charlie Stross, Watts reads horrifying things into the news, informed by the toxic half of history but also by a nebulous paranoia which leads them astray. (Representative sample from Stross: “[media incentive] has been weaponized, in conjunction with data mining of the piles of personal information social networks try to get us to disclose (in the pursuit of advertising bucks), to deliver toxic propaganda straight into the eyeballs of the most vulnerable — with consequences that are threaten to undermine the legitimacy of democratic governmance on a global scale.”. Watts:
Bureaucratic and political organisms are like any other kind; they exist primarily to perpetuate themselves at the expense of other systems. You cannot convince such an organism to act against its own short-term interests... It’s not really news, but we seem to be living in a soft dictatorship. The only choices we’re allowed to make are those which make no real difference... On a purely selfish level I’m happier than I’ve ever been in my life, happier than I deserve. Of course it won’t last. I do not expect to die peacefully, and I do not expect to die in any jurisdiction with a stable infrastructure. At least I don’t have to worry about the world I’m leaving behind for my children; I got sterilized in 1991.
The two biggest fumbles here are his posts on Daryl Bem and high-functioning hydrocephalic people. It is no shame to fall for either: these are highly respectable academic errors (not hoaxes), and Bem’s methods were exactly as valid as the average psychology paper of the early C21st. Watts’ mistake isn’t to insist that ESP is real, but to leap to the defence of the weird just because it is weird, to the point where he rejects Hume’s maxim (“Laplace’s principle”), a basic incontrovertible theorem of Bayesian inference.
[Bem's] results, whatever you thought of them, were at least as solid as those used to justify the release of new drugs to the consumer market. I liked that. It set things in perspective, although in hindsight, it probably said more about the abysmal state of Pharma regulation... I’m perfectly copacetic with the premise that psychology is broken. But if the field is really in such disrepair, why is it that none of those myriad less-rigorous papers acted as a wake-up call? Why snooze through so many decades of hack analysis only to pick on a paper which, by your own admission, is better than most?
The question, here in the second decade of the 21st Century, is: what constitutes an “extraordinary claim”? A hundred years ago it would have been extraordinary to claim that a cat could be simultaneously dead and alive; fifty years ago it would have been extraordinary to claim that life existed above the boiling point of water, kilometers deep in the earth’s crust. Twenty years ago it was extraordinary to suggest that the universe was not only expanding but that the rate of expansion was accelerating. Today, physics concedes the theoretical possibility of time travel
Another big miss is his emphasis on adaptive sociopathy as the cause of our problems, rather than say lack of global coordination power. He is also completely off the deep end on climate change as existential risk, sneering at anyone who disagrees, no matter how well-informed. (He’s far from alone in that.)
there’s no denying that pretty much every problem in the biosphere hails from a common cause. Climate change, pollution, habitat loss, the emptying of biodiversity from land sea and air, an extinction rate unparalleled since the last asteroid and the transformation of our homeworld into a planet of weeds—all our fault, of course. There are simply too many of us. Over seven billion already, and we still can’t keep it in our pants.
Notice the pattern: faced with an apparent dilemma, he happily chucks the strongest, most basic principles to maintain his paranoia (the principles “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence” or here “it is good for people to have children if they want, good lives have worth”).
This bias would be entirely fine if he only admitted error later, about his predicted Trump race riots for instance.
The real danger isn’t so much Trump himself, but the fact that his victory has unleashed and empowered an army of bigoted assholes down at street level. That’s what’s gonna do the most brutal damage.
Most of these posts are entertaining but betray one-way critical thinking: for some reason he can barely see the other half of the world, that we are winning in all kinds of ways.
Lots of learned and fun film reviews: I relaxed, since criticism need have no truth-value. He likes ‘Arrival’ more than ‘Story of Your Life’, which fits: the film is bombastic, paranoid, politicised, unsubtle.
When you can buy the whole damn store and the street it sits on with pocket change; when you can buy the home of the asshole who just disrespected you and have it bulldozed; when you can use your influence to get that person fired in the blink of an eye and turn her social media life into a living hell—the fact that you don’t do any of those things does not mean that you’ve been oppressed. It means you’ve been merciful to someone you could just as easily squash like a bug... Marvel’s mutants are something like that. We’re dealing, after all, with people who can summon storm systems with their minds and melt steel with their eyes. Xavier can not only read any mind on the planet, he can freeze time, for fucksake. These have got to be the worst case-studies in oppression you could imagine.
it still seems a bit knee-jerky to complain about depictions of objectification in a movie explicitly designed to explore the ramifications of objectification. (You could always fall back on Foz Meadows’ rejoinder that “Depiction isn’t endorsement, but it is perpetuation”, so long as you’re the kind of person who’s willing to believe that Schindler’s List perpetuates anti-Semitism and The Handmaid’s Tale perpetuates misogyny.)
Watts reacts with caution and indignation to any police presence, even a compassionate visit to the homeless man sleeping in his garden. It would be crude to explain away Watts’ style and worldview by reference to his unusually bad luck: his flesh-eating disease, his senseless beatdown and prosecution by border cops, his publishing travails, his scientific and romantic flops.
I’m probably only so down on him because I got so excited by Blindsight and its promise of actual science fiction by an actual scientist. He is certainly well above-average rigour for a political blogger, and well above-average imagination for anyone.
I was promised fictional luxury space communism
A glib answer is that they (cynically: their audience) feel they have lost the present (to racist populism, to failed emissions coordination, to surveillance capitalism) and project this into a lost future. I hope I wouldn't let my imagination be so easily determined by the short-lived, contingent success of my ideological opponents.
I hear Chomskyan echoes in the blogs of the above, so maybe his analytical pessimism is also to blame. The idea of being in a perfect closed system, with anything you do co-opted and even your protests serving the system somehow.
Does solarpunk have anything worth reading yet?
Why listen to me on this topic?
- immersion in the field and/or good priors for what makes for an extraordinary claim in it;
- incredible amounts of fact-checking gruntwork, at least 5x the time it takes to just read something; or
- incredible amounts of argument-checking, which doesn't need domain knowledge.
In this case, I am probably about as trustworthy as Watts. Though I am only half a scientist.
Tags: review, epistemology, replication