Using Technology to Deepen Democracy, Using Democracy to Ensure Technology Benefits Us All

Sunday, December 31, 2006

We Needed A New Year!

A new year, begun in hope and in resolve but not yet, for me at least, in optimism. This year is the dice throw, and maybe the turning of the tide. Keep your eyes as open as your hearts are. My best to everybody, d

Transhumanist Trainwreck

I have argued that technodevelopmental social struggle has become the primary location for political struggle and class struggle in our own historical moment. By the term “technodevelopmental social struggle” I mean to describe the struggles of multiple contending stakeholders to shape the distribution of the costs, risks, and benefits of concrete technoscientific changes taking place in the world we all share and, just as crucially, to describe the struggles of these stakeholders to better comprehend and control the terms on the basis of which technoscientific research, development, application, education, and promotion proceed.

Because of my own progressive political commitments (I would say that I am located on the political landscape somewhere between what most people would call a social democrat and a democratic socialist, with a hefty sprinkling of Green, queer, secular, anti-racist, anti-militarist, feminist politics thrown into the mix) and also because of my own special interest in technoscientific issues in particular, I have often described my political orientation by the shorthand term: technoprogressive.

It’s a term that has “caught on” in some places, for good or ill.

I just want to reiterate that for me, this is just a term that means what it sounds like it means: technoprogressive = technoscience-focused + progressive. For me, “technoprogressive” doesn’t denote some newfangled identity, or community, or tribe, or movement, or ideology, or party, or anything of the sort. I personally think the last thing the world needs are a few privileged socially alienated white guys who have decided to start a club of like-minded people with a manifesto and a 501(c)(3) and pretensions to the effect that they hold the Keys of History.

Technoprogressive sensibilities focus on the threats and promises of particular technoscientific developments. Some technoprogressive types are most concerned about the ways in which certain media formations promise to encourage democracy and accountability while others shore up the power of elites. Some are most concerned about the ways in which certain forms of medical research promise to cure diseases and provide widespread social dividends but only so long as research is transparent, participation is informed and nonduressed, and benefits are universal. Some are more concerned about the ways in which renewable energy technologies might ameliorate the catastrophic impact of extractive petrochemical industry, if only these renewable technologies manage at last to be properly subsidized, and only so long as the siren calls for “clean coal” or a resumption of the failed experiment of Big Nuclear that are struggling to preempt the rhetoric of renewable technology are decisively repudiated. Some are more concerned about the ways in which the ongoing intellectual-propertization of digital and genetic code threatens to enclose the commons and consolidate a global feudal aristocracy of incumbent-owners. There are many more technoprogressive strains I could name, but those will do off the cuff.

There are two things I would call attention to from this laundry list right off the bat.

First: These concerns do not cohere seamlessly or monolithically into a single “profile” or “movement.” People concerned with technoscientific questions of this kind may be better informed than people are on average about technoscience, and their concern with questions of democracy and social justice may distinguish them from their more conservative or complacent peers, but it is not as if technoprogressive folks are deeply different than other people. That is to say, they don’t constitute a new or unique “subculture” under threat or whose “way of life” needs to be defended through an identity-movement of some kind.

Second: To the extent that technoprogressive activists and voices do cohere in a way that weaves together their disparate issues and perspective, this coherence really lives at the general level of commonplace already-existing struggles like “social justice movements,” “pro-democracy movements,” “progressive movements,” and so on. Technoprogressive sensibilities are simply nothing new, except to the extent that they may contribute technoscientifically literate and focused arguments, tactics and analyses to already vital global social movements. That is to say, technoprogressive politics are really quite mainstream in my view.

Against this sort of technoprogressive perspective, attitude, and scene I want to contrast as strongly as I possibly can another set of viewpoints with which I think it is all too often compared (or even identified): transhumanism.

The "transhumanist movement" as far as I can honestly make out consists of a fairly small group of science fiction and popular futurist enthusiasts. Although "transhumanist"-identified people seem quite keen to think of themselves as some sort of ethnicity it is difficult to see how they differ as people from other people who have unconventional preoccupations. This curiosity is compounded by the fact that many people who do share some of their preoccupations (reading of speculative literature, enthusiasm about space elevators, enjoyment of anime) do not also call themselves “transhumanists” or will even actively disdain the label. The poor "transhumanists" do seem to have to spend a lot of their time explaining why they aren’t a cult, which has to get tiring, and also explaining how respectable people they like who have never heard of a thing called "transhumanism" or who have heard of it and find it all a little odd are really closeted "transhumanists" in spite of themselves, and so on.

All of this would be relatively harmless, except that I think it has an enormously pernicious impact on what I have come to think of as the really important work that needs to be done by democrats, social justice activists, peace workers and other progressives who are sensitive to the growing significance of technoscientific developments in particular to this moment in our broader democratic-left struggles.

Guilio Prisco is the executive director of the World Transhumanist Association and also a member of the Board of the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies (where I am a Fellow myself). He recently published a piece from a “transhuman identity-politics” perspective that really brings to the fore many of my abiding perplexities and concerns about this sort of viewpoint. Given my ongoing affiliation with IEET I think I have all the more reason to register these concerns here on Amor Mundi.

Prisco writes, for better or for worse, like a True Believer: “I want our [‘transhumanist’] ideas to reach as many people as possible, in a clear and understandable way. Why? Because our worldview can give a sense of meaning of life, a vision of our place in the universe, peace and happiness. This has been the historic function of the world’s great religions and monolithic ideologies[.]” (It really is hard to believe that transhumanists sometimes get compared to cultists, isn’t it?)

Now, I understand how the stresses of global technoscientific churn provoke a strong impulse to retreat to the security of feeling one belongs to some more stable, supportive, meaning-inhering “we,” and to a certain extent I think we find in “transhumanist” identifications one marginal and quite interesting expression of the same development that has also incubated strident fundamentalist and nationalist formations in the face of neoliberal globalization, mass-mediated secularization, proliferating WMD, pandemics, climate-change refugees, and so on. My point isn't to compare "transhumanism" with fundamentalism conceptually (so please don't lose sight of the ball here, people), but to compare the social work done by practices of identification and disidentification in the midst of the stresses of technocultural turmoil. What makes the "transhumanist" identification interesting on this perspective is that it lodges its identificatory energies directly at the unsettling site of the technoscientific engines of transformation themselves.

Be that as it may, quite apart from the fact that it is hard for me to understand exactly how an interest in nanoscale manufacturing or genetic medicine “can give [one] a sense of meaning of life, a vision of our place in the universe, peace and happiness,” any more than, say, an interest in plumbing could (I think probably, on its own, it couldn’t and shouldn’t), I worry more particularly that the politics of identity functioning here under the sign of “pro-technology” (from the perspectives of both bioconservative and “transhumanist” positions) are truly undermining progressive technodevelopmental politics in the sense that matters to me.

Prisco writes “The T word is slowly but steadily penetrating the collective consciousness.” This optimistic opening is somewhat at odds with his expression of frustration later on in the piece “that there are still few committed and declared transhumanists (The WTA has slightly more than hundred paying members), and... we do not have sufficient resources (the current WTA’s yearly budget is less than 20,000 dollars).” Despite this lack of members or resources Prisco offers up as evidence to support his view that “transhumanism” is -- all appearances to the contrary notwithstanding -- poised nonetheless to “sweep the world,” two pieces by very influential bioconservative figures, Francis Fukuyama and Wesley J. Smith.

Both of these figures have recently taken to using the term “transhumanist” to sensationalize, caricature, and oversimplify technoethical dilemmas about which reasonable scientifically literate people happen to disagree -– but in ways that would scarcely offer comfort to the censorious and socially conservative views they themselves happen to espouse.

Prisco writes “I think transhumanism is still in a phase where ‘there is no such a thing as bad press’ (well, almost), so I welcome almost any attack, even some delirious hate pieces, with some pleasure.” While it is no doubt true that if one’s primary political investment is to secure some measure of public recognition as a prelude to achieving public credibility to the curious clatch of fellow-travelers who happen to share one’s own “transhumanist”-identification, then Prisco’s attitude makes a certain sense. Ask any Scientologist, Randroid Objectivist, or Raelian, and they’ll tell you the same. (Before you grumble about the unfairness of any Raelian comparison, I do encourage you to read Prisco's piece, including the wistful discussion of the ranks and resources of the Raelians.)

But let’s say one’s technoprogressive political investment focused elsewhere instead. Let’s say that one was more chiefly concerned with respecting the end-of-life wishes of a now-vegetative person, or with securing more funding for stem-cell research, or with ensuring access to contraception and abortion for women who do not desire pregnancy and access to ARTs for women who do, or with respecting the wishes of differently enabled people to live on their own terms, whether or not these yield “normal” lifeways, or with educating people about safer sex practices or needle exchange or smoking cigarettes or saturated fats in their diets or evolution or climate change. Believe me, if these sorts of actual technoscientific issues constitute the more proximate focus of one’s technoprogressive politics you are participating in highly developed struggles that have everything on earth to lose from gratuitous bad press of the kind Prisco is delighted to encourage.

If one’s political commitments run in more technoprogressive directions then it is undeniably catastrophic to find oneself corralled together with a small coterie of mostly North Atlantic white male technophiliacs, many of whom appear to be market fundamentalist ideologues, or folks pining after a curiously transcendentalized “singularity” involving the near-term arrival of a friendly superintelligent computer, or folks disdaining in a cyberpunkish temper their “meat bodies” and so on, and all this just because one has made an argument that people should have access to unprecedented medical techniques so long as they are informed, their consent is nonduressed, and access to these techniques are widely (I would say universally) available. The reason bioconservatives seek to tar more nuanced technoprogressive positions with the kooky paraphernalia of “transhumanist” identity-politics is that it is one of the few avenues that remain at their disposal in an era of mainstreaming technoprogressivity to seek to discredit the technoscientific transformations that disturb their socially conservative sensibilities and might threaten to dislodge their economically conservative masters from their comfortable perches.

Now, let me be clear. Many “transhumanist”-identified folks seem to think (or want to think) that all I am expressing in arguments like this is a kind of precious squeamishness around the use of a term that has marginal associations, and that the truth is that I am a sell-out or “transhuman” closetcase because I am seeking to establish a toe-hold in more respectable circles despite my own interest radical technology politics. Considering my public championing of queerness, drug legalization, basic income guarantees, democratic world federalism, file-sharing, animal rights, anti-militarism, anti-corporatism and so on, I think this notion that I hesitate to take up marginal stances is a bit curious, but even if there were a kernel of truth to the notion that I don’t want to be misidentified as a right-wing reductionist just because I'm interested in technodevelopmental politics (ok, I’ll admit to some of that), I still think this is a way of getting distracted from the deeper difficulties I have with the very idea that one would seek to engage in technodevelopmental politics through, of all things, an identity-politics lens.

Many people have many concerns with many specific technoscientific developments. Presumably, some of these same people will have no concerns about some other specific technoscientific developments. Surely, this goes without saying?

"Transhumanists" sometimes have an odd way of seeming to take these sorts of inevitable and (from a democratic perspective) altogether desirable conflicts personally. One hears “transhumanist”-identified folks responding sometimes as if people are attacking them personally when critics make arguments about the ways in which emerging NBIC technologies might very well be appropriated by military interests, multinational corporations, or deployed to exploitative or environmentally insensitive ends. It is as if these stakeholder-positions (which may indeed be wrong or misguided or cynical in some cases) constitute personal attacks on these “transhumanist”-identified people, just because these arguments testify to interests or attitudes on particular technodevelopmental changes that differ from the ones these “transhumanist”-identified people see as part of the landscape of the (The) future they are uniquely on the road to, uniquely a part of, uniquely witnesses for, uniquely beholden to.

But, the thing is, there is no single future we are aiming at.

The future isn’t a destination, it’s just more technodevelopmental social struggle. Futurity is a register of the openness of societies that are free, just as ongoing struggle is a register of that same freedom. This is why technoprogressive types, whatever their differences, all still should insist on the priority of political progress in any sensible project to achieve technoscientific progress. This vision of political progress relies for its force and intelligibility on a support of democratic stakeholder politics that is simply straightforwardly incompatible with any identitarian fantasy in which “technology” or “progress” or “the future” uniquely belongs to the perspective delineated by some one “we,” as against other proper stakeholders who are figured as “they.”

It is this basic incomprehension of the terrain of technodevelopmental social struggle that yields the particular embarrassments against which I rail interminably in my many critiques of “transhumanist” discourses. I would argue that the ongoing market libertarian associations, the sad sociopathic hangers-on, the alienation and cultish paraphernalia that haunts its margins, the ongoing attractions to reductionism and technocratic triumphalism that characterize no small amount of “transhumanist”-identified formulations are all themselves symptomatic expressions of this deeper misunderstanding of the priority of political progress to any technodevelopmental progress.

Super Organics?

I was very excited for a time by the research program suggested by Richard Manning in a Wired Magazine article in 2004 on "Superorganics."
A decade ago, GMOs were hailed as technological miracles that would save farmers money, lower food prices, and reduce the environmental damage unintentionally caused by the Green Revolution - a movement that increased yields but fostered reliance on chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and wanton irrigation.... But while producers have embraced GMOs, consumers have had a tougher time understanding the benefits.... Opponents have found an ally in crop scientists who condemn the conglomerates behind transgenics, especially Monsanto.... Which brings us back to smart breeding. Researchers are beginning to understand plants so precisely that they no longer need transgenics to achieve traits like drought resistance, durability, or increased nutritional value. Over the past decade, scientists have discovered that our crops are chock-full of dormant characteristics. Rather than inserting, say, a bacteria gene to ward off pests, it's often possible to simply turn on a plant's innate ability. The result: Smart breeding holds the promise of remaking agriculture through methods that are largely uncontroversial and unpatentable.

Has anybody heard anything lately about superorganics? I can't find much to suggest that this is a notion that is "catching on" particularly (most references Google brings up seem to be to the Manning article itself).

Saturday, December 30, 2006

Today's Random Wilde

It is better to be beautiful than to be good. But on the other hand no one is more ready than I am to acknowledge that it is better to be good than to be ugly.

How I Made It Through

Here is a list of ten movies or now-anthologized television series that I have turned to over and over and over again these last few years -- these endlessly sick, sad, stupid, insipid Bush years -- and somehow, no matter how many times I’ve watched them they’ve never once failed to bolster me, to cheer me up, to help me make it through.

I’m not saying that these are the greatest works ever made (though some of them really are great). I’m not saying these are my favorite things to watch in general (though some of them are, actually). Also, by the way, I’m not claiming that we actually have managed yet to “make it through” (since clearly we have a long hard slog ahead of us politically). But, anyway, for what it's worth, here's some of what has been my comfort media.

Anybody else have a list of media comfort food they’d like to share?

Aqua Teen Hunger Force
Arrested Development
The Awful Truth
Cold Comfort Farm
Galaxy Quest
A Mighty Wind
South Park: Bigger, Longer, & Uncut
Strangers With Candy
Trouble in Paradise

Friday, December 29, 2006

Anti-Intellectual Arguments Against Anti-Intellectualism Are Always Such Fun!

In a recent NYT Op-Ed Nicholas Kristof points out the frightening and lamentable facts that "40 percent of Americans believe in evolution, and only 13 percent know what a molecule is... One-fifth of Americans still believe that the Sun goes around the Earth, instead of the other way around. And only about half know that humans did not live at the same time as dinosaurs." He rightly goes on to claim that this is "a symptom of something much deeper and more serious: a profound illiteracy about science and math as a whole."

From this he goes on to make a frankly flabbergasting accusation: "The problem isn't just inadequate science (and math) teaching in the schools, however. A larger problem is the arrogance of the liberal arts, the cultural snootiness of, of... well, of people like me -- and probably you." Just to be clear at the outset, I personally don't think that snooty literary intellectuals (so-called) have much if anything at all to do with the current debased state of science education in America today.

But I think what we need to pause to contemplate here is not only the fact that Kristof thinks America's superpowerful band of effete esthetes may indeed be a menace standing in the way of a more continent and respected practice of consensus science -- implausibly enough, given the general disrepute and lack of funding that freights the actual lives of almost everybody who actually answers to anything like that job description -- but that he thinks these snooty literary intellectual types constitute a larger problem to science education than crappy science education does.

"In the U.S. and most of the Western world, it's considered barbaric in educated circles to be unfamiliar with Plato or Monet or Dickens, but quite natural to be oblivious of quarks and chi-squares." What lovely cocktail parties Nick Kristof must be hobnobbing in! I must admit that I consider it delightful and rare to find myself in the company of anybody at all who is familiar with Dickens, Plato, or quarks for that matter.

"A century ago, Einstein published his first paper on relativity -- making 1905 as important a milestone for world history as 1066 or 1789 -- but relativity has yet to filter into the consciousness of otherwise educated people." I have to say that my circle of acquaintance rather differs from Kristof's. Among the "educated people" I happen to meet -- and I suspect Kristof means by this phrase formally educated people, which isn't a usage I particularly approve of as it happens, but even in this restricted sense our experience seems to differ -- I am quite as likely to talk to somebody who understands and can discuss relativity in a reasonably knowledgeable way as somebody who understands and can discuss Oscar Wilde or Dorothy Parker in a comparably knowledgeable way.

I must admit that I feel less eager to generalize from my own parochial experience in these matters, to go on to symptomize from there the state of American culture as a whole -- probably one has to be a columnist for the New York Times or something comparably august before one begins to entertain such curious fancies. But I will say that my counterexample is enough, at least from a logical standpoint, to puncture the pretensions of Kristof's own immodesty on this score.

In any case, against C. P. Snow's reasonable and now rather notoriously framed worries about the radically disempowering consequences of general scientific ignorance in ever more conspicuously technoscientific societies, Kristof goes on to propose as apparently the one and only imaginable counterargument (he calls it "the counterargument" and leaves it at that, but the effect is much the same): "we can always hire technicians in Bangalore, while it's Shakespeare and Goethe who teach us the values we need to harness science for humanity."

In moments like these I have to wonder at Kristof's earlier claim to be a representative of literary intellectual culture (one who seems especially keen to wallow masochistically, and quite unecessarily, in a lurid technicolor spectacle of self-hating self-blame at that), inasmuch as this sort of ethnocentric Arnoldian canon fluffing is hardly the sort of thing self-respecting literary intellectuals are comfortable indulging in these days. And curiously enough it tends to be because they are no longer eager props to such silly Establishmentarian parochialisms that such intellectuals tend to get charged with rampaging relativism and "fashionable nonsense" and anti-science pomo-paloozaism in the first place.

"[D]on't pin too much faith on the civilizing influence of a liberal education," Kristof sternly warns... somebody, who knows who, maybe this is some sort of premonitory admonition to his nineteenth century readers: "the officers of the Third Reich were steeped in Kant and Goethe."

Yes, and Hitler was a vegetarian (actually, not really, but no matter). So, you know, I don't know, be sure to eat cows or something or you might find yourself, and quite to your surprise, promoting genocide?

Ever so reasonably, Kristof soldiers on: "[S]imilar arguments were used in past centuries to assert that all a student needed was Greek, Latin and familiarity with the Bible -- or, in China, to argue that all the elites needed were the Confucian classics." Forgive my humanistic pedantry (I teach argumentation in a rhetoric department) but note well the restrictiveness entailed in the all in the phrase "all x needed was y" as opposed to the wonderfully qualified "some" in Kristof's marvellously capacious alternative viewpoint: "Without some fluency in science and math, we'll simply be left behind in the same way that Ming Dynasty Chinese scholars were."

Not to put too fine a point on it, I'd say pretty much nobody who reads Kristof's column with comprehension would argue that all the world needs are more Shakespearean scholars oblivious to basic science, and pretty much everybody who reads his column would agree as a matter of course that it's good for people to understand science in a technoscientific society.

"Increasingly, we face public policy issues -- avian flu, stem cells -- that require some knowledge of scientific methods," Kristof writes, and on this point he is obviously correct. "[Y]et," he bemoans, "the present Congress contains 218 lawyers, and just 12 doctors and 3 biologists."

I seem to recall that once upon a time at least one Senatorial doctor proposed to diagnose a medical condition via edited videotape, and so I don't know that this sort of enumeration is exactly the best way of scouting out indications of scientific literacy. Most lawyers of my acquaintance have exhibited a more than quotidian knowledge of science -- and though I seem to be more reticent about overgeneralizing from personal experience I know to be, at bottom, anecdotal, I don't think I should allow Kristof the unwarranted suggestion that those knowledgeable in the law are therefore ignorant of science.

Anyway, I for one happen to think it is incomparably more relevant to note how many millionaires there are in Congress "representing" a nation of citizens the overabundant majority of whom are not millionaires, than noting how many of those millionaires are millionaire doctors versus millionaire lawyers. But, hey, that's just me.

"In terms of the skills we need for the 21st century, we're Shakespeare-quoting Philistines," he scolds. Funny, and here I would say that where matters of scientific literacy are concerned the problem is that too many of us seem to be Bible-quoting fundamentalists.

A "disregard for science already hurts us," Kristof continues. "The U.S. has bungled research on stem cells, perhaps partly because Mr. Bush didn't realize how restrictive his curb on research funds would be." This is nonsense, of course. Mr. Bush's stupid and harmful policy here is a matter of genuflecting to his religious fundamentalist base.

"And we're risking our planet's future because our leaders are frozen in the headlights of climate change." Again, arrant nonsense. Our "leaders" are frozen in the gunsights of their market fundamentalist corporate funders. Big pockets in extractive pollutive industries need climate-change denial to stay in business and probably imagine they can weather any actual catastrophic climate-change that ensues behind high walls in posh techno-bubble enclaves they can afford precisely because they profited so massively from these deceptions.

But, by all means, let's direct our attention instead to America's pernicious poets and theory-heads: "[T]here's an even larger" -- even larger! -- "challenge than anti-intellectualism." Wait for it. Wait for it. "And that's the skewed intellectualism of those who believe that a person can become sophisticated on a diet of poetry, philosophy and history, unleavened by statistics or chromosomes. That's the hubris of the humanities."

Notice that once again people reading Mark Twain in English Departments and Hannah Arendt in Philosophy Departments are represented here as more menacing to reasonable policy-making than are the actively hostile endlessly documented efforts of religious fundamentalists and Big Business interests to compromise reasonable policy deliberation in the service of their parochial ends.

Apart from the psychological dimensions that must be afoot this nonsensical expression of hostility to the people with whom he claims to identify (only his therapist knows for sure), what is interesting in Kristof's argument is that he seems to think there is something about a humanistic education (and I'm just bracketing for now all the facile overgeneralizations and weirdnesses that encumber the very notion of such a thing) that precludes a scientific education.

I, for one, know of almost no scholars in the humanities who would argue for a priority of literature over the sciences, whatever their own temperamental preferences in the matter -- rather, most scholars seem to struggle to find the words with which to communicate the relevance and worth of literature in a world of businessmen, statisticians, and bomb builders mostly indifferent or even hostile to its attainments.

Contrary to Kristof's rather rarefied impression, it seems to me the generous and critical sensibilities inculcated in the best humanistic education are almost completely disregarded in actually-existing American society, and very much to our cost. Surely I can claim to be in a position to contribute in some real if modest measure to my society in my chosen field without being misconstrued as claiming to speak alone, incomparable, and indispensable, from the summit of Philosopher Kings?

As somebody teaching in the almost catastrophically underfunded and widely disrespected humanities in America, let me remind Mr. Kristof that it is possible for most people to walk and chew gum at the same time, and I happen to think it not unreasonable to hope likewise for a world in which citizens understand the contribution of figures like William James and figures like Charles Darwin at the same time.

Needless to say, I agree that too many Americans are scientific ignoramuses, as innumerate as they are illiterate.

But as far as I'm concerned the blame for this calamity rests squarely on a culture that valorizes superficial short-term profit-taking over all else. In such a debased culture and anti-intellectual climate it seems to me pernicious in the extreme to indulge as Kristof seems to me to be doing in the gratuitous scapegoating of any of the few intellectuals who have managed to survive and testify to some alternative in the midst of this too thoughtless and hence too hopeless dance of death-dealing.

There is nothing more needful for, as well as nothing more vulnerable in, democratic civilization than the multiform expressions of human intelligence.

Fundamentalist religion and short-sighted greed, and certainly not the few post-Nietzschean intellectuals who rightly and forcefully anathematize such fundamentalism, are the real threats to a more proper role for consensus science in technoscientific societies. Anybody with any sense -- whichever side of Snow's "Two Cultures" divide or whichever position on the political spectrum one hails from -- should surely understand this by now.

To Be Denatured Is Humanity's Natural State

Would augmentless humans have less rights than posthumans or AI since augmentless humans can not participate at the same level?

There is simply no such thing as an "augmentless human." Whether you are talking about media immersion, transsexual surgeries, pacemakers, vaccinations, contact lenses, prosthetic limbs, clothing, or written language every human being is always already ineradicably prostheticized through and through.

Thus, what will count as "augmentation" will always be radically contingent historically and socially constructed.

The question that has been asked here is a good and important one (I encountered it on a discussion list earlier today, but I hear variations on this theme from many different sources all the time). It's an important question, because the issue of ensuring that all people have a say in the public decisions that affect them is the definitive problem of democratic politics. And, I'd go on to say that sensitivity to the ways technoscientific developments might provide opportunities for some people to variously threaten or promise to impact the capacities of other people to have such a say in these public decisions that affect them is the key insight for technoprogressive folks in all their varieties.

But it is crucial always to keep in mind that the technologies and the science do not constitute a circumvention of or proper surrogate for what remains in its essence a very straightforward political problem. The politics articulate the technodevelopmental form conspicuously more than the converse. At the root of most technocratic, technophiliac, technophobic, and otherwise technocentric perspectives is a misunderstanding or outright denial of this very basic priority of the political over the technical.

Distributions of authority, wealth, knowledge, force, luck are unequal, and this is a problem in democratic societies that value both the diversity that healthy democracies always exhibit and the equity on which those democracies depend to function. Technodevelopmental transformation constitutes the preeminent contemporary expression of this quandary, but it isn't anything new. For me, the best way to negotiate the quandary is to insist first of all, and as always, on the value of consent. We best ensure both the equity on which democracies depend and the diversity we celebrate as the sign of its thriving when we ensure that the scene of consent is as informed and nonduressed as may be, by securing the widest possible access to knowledge and recourse to the law, and by protecting the space of free deliberation by defending freedom of expression and association and securing freedom from want.

The original question also mentions "posthumans" and "AI," and I'll conclude by commenting about these curiously evocative figures very briefly as well:

[one] I would personally describe most of the beings who get described as "posthuman" candidates (because of their projected gee-whiz gizmoization rather than our own dull customary gizmoization) simply as just "humans" since all humans have always been essentially prosthetic beings. You might say that Aristotle's definition of man as the "political animal," as the animal whose being uniquely comes to fruition in urban -- that is to say public and artifactual -- contexts already forcefully suggests this point.

[two] As for nonbiological-substrate intelligence I really do wish smart technoprogressive folks would wait to cross that bridge when we look like we may actually be coming to it. And, to be clear, I'm sure you'll be flabbergasted to grasp I personally think we are not now close to arriving at this point, or at any rate not close enough to prioritize this issue over other technodevelopmental issues here and now.

I'll go further and suggest that a strong focus on the rights of nonbiological beings who do not yet exist and long might not come to exist often synptomizes, in my view, for now, social alienation more than anything else.

Also, and again this is just in my humble little view, such discussions too readily provide occasion for surrogate political discussions about culturally fraught issues like "racial" and sexual and other morphological differences (read the weird homophobic panic registered in many bioconservative discussions of chimeras, for example), or intergenerational anxieties (ditto, bioconservative discussions of "designer sooperbabies" or "clone armies"), or worries about the soundness of processes of public deliberation among members of a badly educated populace (this Burkean trace is discernible in most expressions of technocratic sensibilities) and so on. In almost every case it seems to me these difficult discussions would be incomparably more helpful to everybody involved if they actually explicitly used the terms they were actually really about.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Today's Random Wilde

There is no secret of life. Life's aim, if it has one, is simply to be always looking for temptation.

Re-Public: The Promise of the Commons

The online journal Re-public has just published the first part of a very interesting issue on The promise of the commons. The issue explores the technocultural openings that the concept of the 'commons' presents for contemporary democratic theory and practice . Among the articles are a piece by a hero of mine, Richard Stallman on The free software movement, a piece by one of my colleagues at the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies, Douglas Rushkoff Commons: Creating an alternative value system, and a piece by my friend Michel Bauwens, Peer production, peer governance, peer property, among many others. I hope to provide comments on these pieces once I've managed at long last to get all my finals graded.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Catching the Drift: Quick Election Postgame from the Perspective of the Emerging Technoprogressive Mainstream

Although I haven't really blogged about it this last month (from my vantage deep in the weeds of teaching four new classes simultaneously at Cal and at SFAI, a madness I will never attempt again) I do want to say that the latest US election was so encouraging for me and in so many ways! This is not to say the results were perfect, obviously, they were just... encouraging, and at a time when I personally had come to be starving for any encouragement along those lines.

I am so pleased about the victories of Sherrod Brown and Bernie Sanders, so pleased at the prospect of good folks in the Progressive Caucus finding their way into Leadership and oversight positions, and from a technoprogressive angle of view especially so pleased at what nearly everybody is coming to see as the indispensable role of peer-to-peer formations (blogs, online small contribution aggregation, rapid-fire online negative campaigning pushback, citizen oversight, and so on) in this election. This is an impact that is growing stronger by the hour, and all to the good for those of us who prefer people-powered democratic over elite partisan Machine politics, whatever party label gets slapped onto the result.

Again, from a specifically technoprogressive standpoint, it was interesting to see a host of candidates who foregrounded issues of technology and science in their campaigns, or who got caught up in technodevelopmental issues, and whose progressive positions on these questions was key to their victories or good showings -- in ways that suggest next time around they will be foregrounded again and still more.

I have already argued that technoprogressive topics and positions assumed a real force in mainstream political life this election cycle, with targeted initiatives on stem-cell research funding, increasing access to reproductive technologies (or rolling back abortion bans), support for renewable energy being used to mobilize democratic voters -- straightforward progressive populist minimum-wage increase initiatives were also key this time around, of course. This trend will only increase as single-payer returns to the table in the next couple years, as labor finds its legs and demands medical and renewables r&d reinvigorate the American middle class, and so on.

Meanwhile the Schiavo circus, Creationist follies, climate-change denial, anti-medical research zealotry, and other bioconservative shenanigae got a thrashing for the most part and imposed real costs on the conservatives who accommodated them.

The crucial danger in this undeniably promising moment is, of course, the consolidation of the alliance of moneyed corporatist Dems and the corporatist wing of the Republican party. The Rubinite neoliberals, DLCers, Clintonistas, and so on have a lot of fight left in them, and the Repug corporatists will often be able to sell themselves as the reasonable non-wingnutified faction of post-Bush Republicanism. Together they can do incredible harm, whitewashing accountability efforts, domesticating corruption and campaign finance reform, introducing poison pills into democratizing measures, producing marketized versions of needed welfare programs that will line the pockets of crony-"capitalists" and then be blamed erroneously when they fail (as they will) on Big Bad Government, and so on.

Techno-progressive types (so-called) should keep their eyes on the ball as many bioconservatives continue to try to re-invent themselves as populist anti-corporatists while stealthing their neocon/theocon/luddite stances, all the while too many so-called "technoprogressives" enthusiastically will continue to be or inertially drift into what amount to hypenotized corporate boosters -- or at any rate fail to consistently and insistently foreground anti-corporate critique in their positions and hence abet corporate-military developmental models.

(Too quick and too dirty, the argument to earn the "hence" in that last claim is: because these corporate-militarist models almost exhaustively constitute the technodevelopmental status quo -- that is to say, since dollars and bullets so overabundantly overdetermine contemporary global technoscientific developments as they actually play out in the world -- we must be wary that any presumably "neutral" advocacy of "tech" that does not include corporate-military critique will take up the terms and assumptions and ends of that status quo, to the well-nigh inevitable disproportionate benefit of its incumbent interests and formations first of all, in all their violence and horror and pointless waste.)

Many corporate-militarists will be mistaken by inadequately critical or "apolitical" technology enthusiasts as "Pro Technology," "Pro Progress," "Pro Future," or (worst of all, though none of these labels seems particular coherent to me) "H+ Friendly," or comparable foolishnesses. None of these facile "Pro/Con" "Us/Them" ways of conceptualizing the terrain of global technodevelopment policy is worth its brutally oversimplifying costs to one's critical faculties and almost every time such formulations are deployed it will be to the benefit of incumbency over democracy.

In all but the most extreme cases of bioconservate zealotry on the one hand or flawless technoscientifically-literate anti-corporate-militarist populism on the other (both of which certainly occur, but neither of which really define the terrain in any sense), this kind of broad-brush thinking will lead the usual suspects of "the futurological congress" to repeatedly mis-identify the relevant costs, benefits, risks, opportunities, stakeholders, and possible strategic alliances associated with actual concrete moment to moment technoscientific developments.

For any "transhumanists," so self-identified, who remain among my cherished readership, let me be especially clear.

By the term "technoprogressive" above I personally mean, quite simply:

I. "progressive perspectives on technoscience and development issues"


II. "the latest Randroid, Scientologist, Raelian, Extropian Robot Cult a few white guys have decided is really truly going to Prevail over History because 'We' [TM] have found the Way of Ways."

This is because, in my own humble opinion...

There will never be a Robot Cult that acquires "members" enough to constitute a majority or even a monolithic minority sufficiently consolidated to find a place at the stakeholder table. Neither will there ever be a "Techno" political party that is anything but a joke.

For technoprogressive minded folks it seems to me that one's first impulse upon hearing an argument on a technodevelopmental issue should be something on the order of: "How will this skew the institutional and informational ecology to the cost, risk, and benefit of which concrete ends?" or, more straightforwardly, "How will this or how could this be made to contribute to the project of democracy and social justice rather than to established elites and elite control?"

If one's first impulse upon hearing an argument on a technodevelopmental issue instead is something on the order of "How is this formulation 'friendly' or 'unfriendly' or even 'defamatory' to the moral tribe of tech-enthusiasts with whom I have come to personally identify even while almost nobody else on earth has ever heard of us"... well, how should I put it? Any person whose first reaction takes that sort of form is simply not particularly serious in my view, and, frankly, seems to me not very helpful even when they happen to value comparable concrete outcomes I do.

Think about that. Actually think about it. What does it actually mean if you have come to read arguments with which you agree or disagree on questions of possible technodevelopmental outcomes (which are, after all, complex in their histories and distributions, uncertain in their consequences, general in their impacts, and global in their play) through the primary lens of personal identification with some parochial moral community? Can you not see the outright folly (in many more ways than one) of such a perspective?

The results of the election bespeak an emerging technoprogressive mainstream, defined as progress and democracy also already are, by many different and dynamic stakeholders and debates. Why on earth would one foreswear full participation in such a rearticulation of mainstream progressive politics to embrace the tired identity politics of some minoritized clique clamoring for legitimacy and recognition? It looks to me like a waste of energy, a squandering of opportunity, and an invitation to (at best) fuzzy and (at worst) authoritarian thinking.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Zerzan's Premodernist Complaint about "Postmodern" Thought

Early in his recent essay Greasing the Rails to a Cyborg Future, John Zerzan claims that "the reigning cultural ethos of our times [is] postmodernism." This seems to me, honestly, a fairly surreal mischaracterization of the current North Atlantic cultural ethos. If I were forced to offer up such a monolithic characterization in the first place, I would say the current ethos is better described as a clash of institutional neoliberalism and diverse popular resistences to this neoliberalism. In a way I suspect Zerzan would sympathize with such a description, which, if true, implies that our differences really turn most on where something called "postmodernism" fits into such a clash.

Zerzan begins by accusing "postmodernism" of any number of apparent infirmities, most of which I take issue with from the get-go. He derides, first off, for example, what he takes to be "postmodernism's" "sharply narrowed ambitions concerning thought[.]"

Now, I simply don't agree that all the viewpoints typically described as "postmodern" lack ambition in matters of thought. In fact, dwelling on the statement for more than a second reveals that it is an incredibly weird thing to say in general. What count as ambitions in matters of thought? Are we to encourage immodesty in matters of thought? Unfortunately, this puzzlement I am feeling already is a preview of coming attractions in the piece.

Next, Zerzan bemoans "its tendency to shade into the cynical."

And again, I'm afraid, I just can't make sense of the claim that all the viewpoints typically described as "postmodern" are cynical. Certainly the views expressed by Judith Butler, Donna Haraway, Paul Gilroy, Richard Rorty are not particularly cynical ones, and they are the figures I know best. There's a lovely and endearing forthrightness and earnestness in many of my favorite passages in these figures, seems to me. Maybe Michel Foucault is a bit cynical here and there, for one, but cynicism doesn't seem particularly constitutive of his thinking. What is Zerzan really on about, I'm wondering...

"[P]ostmodernism," he intones, "has become a term both pervasive and faceless."

Now, as an accusation "postmodern" certainly has acquired a certain pervasiveness -- comparable to, say, the pervasiveness of the accusation "politically correct" in certain mouthbreathing circles (with just as little relevant content in either case). But as a legible or consistent self-ascription things get a lot more ambiguous pretty quickly. Funny how that happens.

"But," Zerzan continues on, postmodernism "does have a face. [A faceless one, presumably, from the above, but given those wily postmodern paradoxialists, I'm sure that this is a perfectly reasonable thing to say on Zerzan's part somehow.] The theory of postmodernism began in large part as French reaction against the grand and total claims of Marxism."

Of course, Lyotard, Baudrillard, Latour, Foucault, Derrida say rather importantly different things about Marx when you take the time to read them. But no matter.

It is just as fair to say "postmodernism" reflects the shift of philosophy from a structuralist to a post-structuralist moment. It is just as fair to say "postmodernism" reflects a brief period when Venturi was really exciting people who were interested in architecture or De Lillo was really exciting people who were interested in contemporary literature. It isn't exactly clear that all of these people were really talking about the same sorts of things or even talking to one another when they used the term "postmodern" or had the term "postmodern" attached to whatever it is that they were up to. But no matter.

Funny how complicated things get when you know anything about them.

"Emerging and spreading about 20 years ago, in a period of reaction with almost no social movements, postmodernism bears the imprint of conservatism and lowered expectations."

No doubt that depends on who you ask. Here's a recommendation: Try asking.

I do want to point out, as an aside, that this glib dismissal of the last 20 years seems to involve the usual refusal to take queer politics seriously. I also think it invovles an even more shocking refusal to recognize the emerging peer-to-peer intervention into proprietary socioeconomics and credentialed politics, which is in my view the single most important social movement of the last fifty years, unfinished and precarious though it may be.

Zerzan then points out that "[postmodernism] has also risen in lockstep with the unfolding logic of an increasingly technological 'cyborg' society." I do take seriously Zerzan's worry about the impact of the neoliberal context in which academic discourses -- whether "postmodern" or not -- are generated, circulated, and applied. But I find it suspicious that he would single out so-called "postmodernist" discourse for such worries, especially since it is fairly commonplace among such discourses to draw attention themselves to these very issues.

Zerzan continues:
Postmodernism tells us that we can't grasp the whole, indeed that the desire for an overview of what's going on out there is unhealthy and suspect, even totalitarian. We have seen, after all, how grand systems -– "metanarratives," as they are fashionably referred to –- have proven oppressive. Having hit on this epiphany, the pomo troops were quick to throw out the baby with the bathwater. Skeptical about the claims and results of previous systems of thought, postmodernism has in fact jettisoned nearly all desire or hope of making sense of what we experience. It abandons the "arrogance" of trying to figure out the origins, logic, causality, or structure of the world we live in.

How, one wonders, can a group presumably so fragmentary and superficial and endlessly skeptical nevertheless cohere into a fearsome robot army marching in lockstep? How, one wonders, can a group so routinely reviled and trivialized be at once presumably so fashionable?

If Zerzan agrees that totalizing explanatory frameworks taken as universal certainties can be oppressive, just what "baby" is he trying to reclaim from the totalizing authoritarian fundamentalist "bathwater" we all rightly disdain?

He claims that "postmodernists" have "in fact jettisoned nearly [love that ass-saving qualification] all desire or hope of making sense of what we experience."

I venture to say that not a single so-called postmodernist of note has abandoned such hopes, and by far the majority of these figures would characterize their thinking as an effort at meaning making, even if in a construal that Zerzan wouldn't content himself with.

"Instead," Zerzan soldiers on,
postmodernists focus on surfaces, fragments, margins. Reality is too shifting, complex, and indeterminate to decipher or judge. Too "messy," too "interesting" to allow for fixed conclusions, as Donna Haraway puts it in her own well-known "Cyborg Manifesto."

I challenge Zerzan to provide the quote and context for this claim. How hard could it be if the text is truly so "well-known" to him?

I challenge Zerzan to flesh out why an interest in surfaces, fragments, and margins apparently disqualifies one from thinking reasonably about structure or causality or logic? Why cannot complex and shifting realities be judged? Why are the only "conclusions" that qualify as such for Zerzan apparently "fixed" ones?

The answer to all of these perplexities likely is that Zerzan is temperamentally a conservative, whatever his commitment to some causes (environmentalism, anti-globalization) shared by some (me included) who are progressive. All of the deeper fears and paranoias registered in the piece seem to me quite conventionally conservative ones.

Zerzan snidely reminds us of the common complaint that "postmodern style is notorious for its dense language and games of contradiction." One wonders if Zerzan refuses to read poetry as well for these reasons. Or Plato. Or Nietzsche. One also wonders if perhaps some of the "density" in play here isn't exactly attributable to Haraway's language.
In Haraway's manifesto, for example, she concedes that "the main trouble with cyborgs, of course, is that they are the illegitimate offspring of militarism and patriarchal capitalism" –- but that in no way dims her enthusiasm for a part human, part machine, high-tech future!

But Haraway's "Manifesto for Cyborgs" manifestly has as much rage in it as it does enthusiasm. If readers of WiReD magazine, say, saw nothing but enthusiasm in Haraway's piece, it's because that's all they wanted to see there. If Zerzan sees nothing but enthusiasm, it's because that's all he wants to see as well. Neither reading seems to me particularly careful or interesting. Indeed, this sort of reading seems to me pretty embarrassing and dumb.

"Things grow stark and menacing in every sphere," Zerzan intones, "and still Haraway and the postmodern crowd insist that conclusions be avoided." Haraway's "Manifesto" draws many conclusions, of course, among them many that comport well with the appraisal that technoscientific societies defined by the parochial patriotism and profit-taking of neoliberal corporate-militarism are stark and menacing.

Zerzan may wish that theory could, through a pious embrace of whatever more synoptic methodology he imagines he has found his way to, provide certain and conclusive guidance to the quandaries of this historical moment. It is an old story that boys turn to their toys and their stolid steely philosophies when they recoil from the fraught ambiguities and compromises of stakeholder politics in a diverse world. I don't see why I should be expected to hold his hand particularly as he deals with (or refuses to do so) these facts of life. But I quite agree we should use the theories and other tools at our disposal to do the best we can in the causes of democracy and social justice. Many of the theories and tools I find congenial to my democratic ambitions are the ones that tend to be derided as "postmodernist." Live with it.

The key claim arrives in Zerzan's next declaration, namely, that "[o]f course, once one renounces any attempt to comprehend the overall situation, it's easy to embrace the endless complex of piecemeal 'solutions' offered by technology and capital." I see the force of the point, at least to a point. But I don't agree that such an accommodation of capital becomes any less easy just because a theorist acquires delusions of grandeur.

It isn't as if many of the more apparently compelling accounts of "the overall situation" (a view always only available from the perspective of the Cyclops eye of an awe-inspiring enormous swinging dick, one suspects or is meant to do), aren't also nice loud mouthpieces for the princes of industry and captains of their mercenary armies. It isn't "postmodernists" extruding sausages of mass-mediated reality congratulating themselves at being eyewitness accounts of "the overall situation" with titles like The Book of Virtues or The Clash of Civilizations or The End of History, after all. I mean, really, now.

"Postmodernism celebrates evanescent flows, a state of no boundaries, the transgressive," Zerzan continues. "If this sounds familiar, it's because these values are shared by the most ardent architects of both consumerism and capitalist globalization."

I do think there are some texts written by some of the figures who are typically corralled together (mostly by their foes, but whatever) under the "postmodern" banner, that have moments which really do seem altogether too cozy with the voracious energies of "free trade" in its dreadful neoliberal construal. And I do think it is right and important to highlight these moments and resist them.

But, frankly, some of the best critiques of these moments in some so-called "postmodernists" come from critiques likewise called "postmodernist" by critics of "postmodernism." And I think it is weird to imply that postmodernism -- which is honestly impossible to talk about sensibly in the monolithic construal that inevitably attaches to conversations like this -- is more complicit in neoliberalism than are the conservative foundationalist frameworks championed by many of the most vociferous critics of "postmodern" theory. Indeed, the overall tone of anti-postmodern discourse (whatever its occasional insights) seems to me indistinguishable from reactionary anti-intellectual and anti-humanistic discourse, and hence I am very suspicious of its politics even when it is inspired to defend (as I do myself and Zerzan, by the way, does not -- however vulnerable I may be to a "postmodern" appellation) the practices of proper consensus science in technoscientific cultures such as my own.

Zerzan worries that "[a]s the dimensions of personal sovereignty and community steadily erode, along with meaning and value, a consumer society in cyberspace becomes the uncontested next stage of human existence."

But I for one simply do not agree that the kind of surefire efficacy and certainty that tends to attach to sovereign conceptions of agency can't be jettisoned without losing the real blessings of community, meaning, and value.

This looks to me just like conventional conservative hysteria in the face of novelty. I have been hesitating to lug out the ultimate weapon here, but honestly do look up Zerzan's sketch of a more desirable world (a literally genocidal fantasy of preagricultural mammals grubbing authentically in the muck) if you doubt the easy companionability of premodern conservativism with anti-postmodern polemic.
Division of labor, structures of control, the nature of technology –- not to mention less abstract factors like drudgery, toxicity, the steady destruction of nature –- are integral to the high-tech trajectory. They are also of no concern, evidently, to postmodernists, who continue to cling to the subtle, the tentative, the narrowly focused.

Inevitably, the perplexed question arises... Has Zerzan actually read any of the texts he is talking about?

At this point, I fear, the observations have acquired what seems to me a rather fragmentary and superficial quality (but not, you know, in a postmodern kinda sorta way), and so I hope I can be forgiven a comparable scattering.
Virtual reality mirrors the postmodern fascination with surfaces, explicitly rejoicing in its own depthlessness –- one obvious way in which the postmodernists are the accomplices of the Brave New World.

Does this mean that Zerzan construes the writings of, say, Katherine Hayles on virtuality as "explicitly rejoicing in... depthlessness"? That seems to me an awfully difficult reading to substantiate, once one has actually read her. And if Zerzan has in mind some other theorist who presumably represents a "postmodern" account of "virtual reality" I would be pleased to know who he means. This is a subject in which I have dipped my own oar here and there as it happens. It's not that I mean to be snotty about it, but I do know enough to be perplexed about the formulations getting flung about here.

Another Zerzanian observation: "As we reject any possibility of understanding shared or even personal experience, no challenge to that experience seems plausible."

Okay, I'll bite. Who's "we"?

The zany Zerzanianisms are coming fast and furious now: "The political counterpart of postmodernism is pragmatism; we find ways of accommodating ourselves to the debased norm."

What to say? Isn't this a rather facile characterization, to speak charitably? Willian James, John Dewey, and Richard Rorty advocate the accommodation to debased norms, then? Does Zerzan have a citation or two to adduce in support of this claim, so one has some sense of how to talk this over with him? Certainly it's fine to debate the finer points if one is talking to somebody who has some grasp of the subject matter, but, to be blunt, these bumper stickers are incomprehensible to me. I would say (admittedly just a countervailing bumper sticker) American pragmatism fueled some of the Progressive era reforms that I can only assume Zerzan would champion given his stated disdain for our own Gilded Age corporatist crimes. Richard Rorty had a brief flirtation with the postmodern term, which he later came to disavow for good reasons that he stated at length. Does Zerzan have that in mind here or something else? Is he conflating pragmatism with the instrumental rationality criticized by the Frankfurt School? Who knows? These are reasonable things to talk about, but it is hard to say how they could issue out in the larger criticisms that animate this piece.

The Big Finish:
The decay of meaning, passion, and inner vibrancy has been going on for a while. Today it is a juggernaut, in the face of which postmodernism is the culture of no resistance. The good news is that there are signs of life, signs that folks in various places are beginning to suspect our culture's greatest hoax.

If Zerzan means to suggest here that "postmodernism" is our culture's greatest hoax, then I fear he is shooting at fish in a barrel. If Zerzan means to suggest here that neoliberalism is culture's greatest hoax, and that deriding "postmodernism" contributes something vital to the elimination of that hoax, then I am sorry to say he is shooting blanks.

“Technoradical”: Rebels Without a Cue?

A friend and colleague of mine has taken to using and even promoting the term “techno-radicalism” to describe what he is up to politically. This is a friend who shares a number of my own idiosyncratic political commitments and who, in consequence of this, has also sometimes described his perspective as a “technoprogressive” one. Of course, I sometimes use that latter term as a shorthand way of describing myself -– since for me (and this doesn’t seem to be true for everybody) the term “technoprogressive” designates nothing more mysterious than being a progressive who is especially interested in questions of technoscientific development, pretty much exactly as it sounds like it designates. Anyway, this friend was rather perplexed to find that the term “techno-radical” makes me really uncomfortable. Given my published arguments on questions of technology, ecology, and democracy, he had probably come to think of me as something of a “techno-radical” like himself. That’s fair enough as far as it goes, but my discomfort has a point and I think it pays to dwell on it a bit.

Even if there is an appealing etymological connection between a concern with fundamentals and consequent normative commitments inhering in the term “radical,” it's still true that the pretty common usage for "radical" indicates simply "intensity of conviction" or even "extremism." Far worse to my mind, this is an intensity without any suggestion of its actual political location (left, right, democratic, theocratic, Royalist, whatever). And so, of course, as a practical matter it seems to me always a good idea for goodly radicals to indicate the street where their radicalism lives -- if indeed radicalism is what is wanted -- lest they find themselves hobnobbing with uncongenial radicals (neocons and theocons are radicals, after all).

My point is that a notion of the "techno-radical" is ambiguous without an immediate specification of its intellgible political location. Annalee Newitz is techno-radical. I'll blow her my kisses. Glenn Reynolds is techno-radical. I'll dance on his grave in a red dress. As it were. What I am saying is that the term "techno-radical" (or even worse "techno-radicalism," oy) unhelpfully invites ambiguity because it imagines itself content-indicative despite the fact that the term itself doesn't specify the actual politics that will inevitably define everything that really matters about its "radicality."

If I am belaboring this obvious point a bit it is because I think this ambiguity in radicalism is especially pronounced and especially pernicious when talk turns to “technology.”

The priority of the political (and indeed in a fairly conventional left-right construal, however much many “technology radicals” may seem to wish otherwise) to the promotion of technoscientific progress simply has to remain palpably and insistently in view at all times for technoprogressive folks, else structural tendencies will almost inevitably skew technodevelopment to the right politically , whatever the radicals’ intentions may be.

These structural tendencies include the facts that

[1] science is regularly imagined to be or at any rate treated as if it were (effectively) a politically autonomous or neutral descriptive practice, and as such this provides an irresistible occasion to invest parochial normative assumptions with the appearance of necessity;

[2] the scientific end of achieving consensus differs so conspicuously with the political end of managing dissensus that the cultural ethos of advocacy for scientific culture regularly lends itself to discomfort, dismissal, or even hostility to the ethos of democratic culture, and hence is regularly accompanied by reductionist attitudes that seek (a) to invalidate the normative plurality of stakeholder politics by redescribing them as bias or irrationality or passion or (b) to circumvent the contingency and compromise of practical stakeholder politics with a technocratic or scientistic redescription of politics as a set of engineering problems;

[3] futurist discourse -- as opposed to, say, utopian literary discourse -- arises conspicuously out of the investment and managerial literature of North Atlantic corporate culture, and retains many of its conservative proprietary, elitist, instrumentalizing assumptions; and

[4] parochial patriotic and profit motives define the established terms of contemporary neoliberal global corporate-military technodevelopment in ways that conspicuously preferentially benefit elites to the catastrophic cost of majorities.

Given these structural tendencies all technology discourse, however “radical” it may be, even when it arises out of democratic conviction, seems to me especially susceptible to appropriation by anti-democratic forces in the actual world we live in. And given this special vulnerability it seems to me the special responsibility of democratic technology discourse constantly and insistently to reassert the priority of the political to any promotion of technoscientific progress. It’s that simple.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Too Inconvenient

The bloggers over at ThinkProgress provide a heads-up about a piece appearing in tomorrow’s Washington Post, written by the environmentalist Laurie David. In the piece, David tells the story of her attempt to donate 50,000 free DVD copies of Al Gore's generally excellent documentary about climate change, An Inconvenient Truth (which she co-produced) to the National Science Teachers Association.

The Association remarkably refused to accept the free DVDs, suggesting that were they to do so other “special interests” might ask them to distribute their materials, too. The Association said they didn’t want to offer any “political” endorsement of the film. They also saw “little, if any, benefit to NSTA or its members” in accepting the free DVDs.

Yes, the National Science Teachers Association is implying that the scrupulously researched, incomparably widely affirmed case offered by the film An Inconvenient Truth is the "politicized" expression of "special interests."

There is a sense in which I am happy to concede that the film does foreground the special interest scientifically literate people have in the usefulness to sound public policy of the advice of consensus science... but it is truly difficult to grasp how this could pose a difficulty for The National Science Teachers Association, given the dictionary definitions of all the terms of which their organizational name is comprised.

Laurie David draws special attention to the Association's concern that accepting thse DVD would place “unnecessary risk upon the [NSTA] capital campaign, especially certain targeted supporters.”

I scarcely imagine anybody will be particularly surprised to discover that these "certain targeted supporters" include Exxon-Mobil, Shell Oil, and the American Petroleum Institute, all of which have already given millions of dollars in funding to the NSTA. You will forgive me if I suggest that the NSTA's fastidiousness concerning "special interests" would appear to be somewhat selective.

Laurie David savors (then spits out) the irony that the very selfsame NSTA that shrugged aside An Inconvenient Truth, has, however, eagerly distributed “educational” content funded by the oil industry. Among these fine nonpoliticized educational materials, she points out, is a video produced by the American Petroleum Institute, which offers up the immortal opening lines: “You’re absolutely not going to believe this, but almost everything I have that’s really cool comes from oil!”

Today's Random Wilde

One must have some occupation nowadays. If I hadn't my debts I shouldn't have anything to think about.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Technoethical Pluralism

In What Pragmatism Means, William James proposed that “truth is one species of good, and not, as is usually supposed, a category distinct from good, and coordinate with it. Truth is the name of whatever proves itself to be good in the way of belief, and good, too, for definite, assignable reasons.” For pragmatic philosophy since Peirce, beliefs are construed as habits of thought that provide guides for conduct. Taken together, these theses imply that we properly describe as “true” those warranted propositions that guide us to conduct ourselves in ways that yield more satisfaction than not in our efforts to cope with our various personal and shared concerns.

But it is obvious that people take up any number of different -- even what might appear to be irreconcilably different -- concerns. And this human heterogeneity is manifest not only in our social and cultural and political plurality, but even within our own hearts. And if our concerns are not always reducible to the same essential form, then -- from all the above -- this implies that our good beliefs, proper truths, warranted assertions will likewise take a number of proper forms.

And so, people arrive at rational convictions in their diverse coping with efficacious, moral, ethical, aesthetic, and political concerns (no doubt among others). Each of these concerns can be expected to be quite differently warranted and surely none of them is, a priori, reducible to or stably hierarchizable in respect to any of the others, except in a case to case sort of way.

To be rather schematic about it, I distinguish five basic modes of reasonable belief-ascription (and since it seems to me that this sort of schema is likely to edify philosophically-inclined folks like me most of all, I have correlated these modes to the various branches of Philosophy in a roughly traditional sketch):

[1] Efficacious beliefs (for which practices of consensus science will tend, usually sensibly enough, to be taken as paradigmatic), (a) implemented or incarnated through collective practices of experimentation, substantiation, and publication, (b) these are warranted by criteria of defeasibility and demonstration, and contingent commitment to them provides (c) relative powers of prediction and control;

[2] Moral beliefs, from mores, or "we-intentions," (a) implemented or incarnated through collective practices of identification and dis-identification, (b) these are warranted by coherence with observed collective practice or in respect to authoritative utterances (by established authorities or through authoritative interpretations of canonical texts), and contingent commitment to them provides (c) a relative sense of belonging and assurance of social support;

[3] Aesthetic beliefs (beliefs that things that are idiosyncratically valued by oneself are therefore valuable as such, that is to say, susceptible to legibility as valued by others even if they are not in fact valued widely at present or even at all valued otherwise), (a) implemented or incarnated through exhibitions and performances of ongoing creation and self-creation offered up to general reception, (b) these are warranted in particular by the absolutely unpredictable transaction of inter-personal affirmation and facilitated in general by the scene of informed, nonduressed consent as such (even if not necessarily legible as optimal, normalizable, generalizable, rationalizable, moralistically acceptable, and so on), and contingent commitment to them provides (c) a relative sense of autonomy and personal perfection;

[4] Ethical beliefs, (a) implemented or incarnated through practices of public deliberation available -- typically only "in principle" -- to all, (b) these are warranted by general assent and formal universalizablity (this is tricky to delineate theoretically, since universals will always retroactively be exposed as expressions of parochial perspectives: the real force of formal universality is that it is a normativity that aspires to a universality defined, in actual practice, always against the grain of contemporary practices of moral normativity that themselves are always circumscribed by practices of dis-identification with constitutive outsiders who are then in principle included (includ-able) in a formal universality that fails therefore to yield the effects of positive identification), and contingent commitment to which provides (c) a relative incarnation of a "personal status" accorded the standing of rights-bearer, property-bearer, consent-bearer, cosmopolitan citizen-subject, peer among peers;

[5] Political beliefs, (a) implemented or incarnated through the dynamic of strategic, opportunistic, usually citational, never equal interpersonal power relationships (in the sense best and complementarily delineated by Michel Foucault and Hannah Arendt as non-sovereign "power," and then recently reformulated by Judith Butler as "performativity"), (b) these are warranted by their general legibility and their specific legitimacy -- in democratic variations, usually according to constitutional establishments of a rule of law ordained by the consent of the governed, in anti-democratic variations, to authoritative pronouncements by a ruling or incumbent elite often claiming a privileged relation to a divine or naturally (this includes "market") ordained order of things -- a process which provides (c) a contingent reconciliation of the aspirations of the diversity of the stakeholders or peers who share a finite world (not all of whom we will concede are our "equals," not all of whom solicit our personal identification). In democratic variations of the political, the reconciliation of these diverse ends must be as consensual and nonviolent as possible, while in anti-democratic variations (which will typically mime democratic forms at the level of rhetoric), politics is simply a matter of reconciling majorities to elite or incumbent interests.

Now, it seems to me that enormous amounts of confusion and mischief arise from the fact that philosophers, of both the professional and armchair varieties, too often seem mistakenly to want to characterize the protocols of warranted assertibility arising from just one of these modes of belief ascription -- which they happen to privilege for whatever reason, only their therapists know for sure -- as uniquely characteristic or definitive of rationality as such. From this, they go on then to misread the attributes, protocols, and ends defining other necessary normative modes in ways that distort or denigrate them.

I would say that this is what happens when people seek to understand the political from the perspective of scientific instrumentality (as reductionism does), or of aesthetics (as some fascists did), or morality (as many religious fundamentalists seem to do), or to understand ethics from the perspective of the political (as nihilists do) or of instrumentality (as determinists do), and so on.

For me, rationality, properly speaking, is nothing like a reductionist project at all, but consists of being able, first, to determine which mode of belief best comports with a particular end or mode of shared concern (prediction and control? membership in a particular moral community? narrative coherence in a risky project of self-creation? normative claims that solicit universal assent? reconciliation of ends among peers? or what have you) and then, second, to satisfy the criteria for warranted assertibility proper to that mode.

I happen to think these considerations can be especially illuminating to what is described as "bioethical" discourse and technoethical discourses more generally at the moment.

To me, for example, what goes on under the heading of "bioethics" sometimes looks far more like a kind of biomoralism. By this I mean to say such "bioethical" discourse really amounts to a set of prescriptions arising out of some particular community of moral identification and, crucially, disidentification. I would suggest that many "bioconservative" arguments take this form.

Some "bioethics" looks to me far more like a kind of bio-aestheticism: that is to say, they consist of testaments to a desired or ongoing pursuit of private perfection in the form of projects of prosthetic self-creation making claims to general legibility but not necessarily to general affirmation. Sometimes "bioethical" discourses take the form of what I would describe instead as bioscientisms, parochial prescriptions stealthed as medical or "neutral" instrumental descriptions. And, of course, quite a lot of "bioethical" discourse is really simply a matter of skirmishes across a biopolitical policy terrain, consisting of efforts to arrive at contingent compromise formations in the context of diverse stakeholders in relatively, or at any rate notionally, democratic societies.

These differing concerns (instrumental, moral, esthetic, ethical, political, and so on) clearly generate importantly different "shoulds," they are arrived at through importantly different protocols, they are sensitive to importantly different phenomena, and they are warranted as rational by importantly different criteria.

I worry that bioethical discourse sometimes tends to be insensitive to (and perhaps even a bit antagonistic to) the actual irreducible diversity of perfectly rational, intelligible normative practices. It seems especially susceptible to a reductionism that would denigrate democratic stakeholder plurality as "bias," or consensual lifeway diversity as "suboptimality," "illness" or "irrationality" -- either out of a misplaced faith in a triumphalist scientism that looks for all the world like the evangelism it likes (properly enough) to decry in others, or as an uncritical expression of sociocultural privilege in an era of technodevelopmental social struggle defined essentially by conflicts between reductive corporate-military rationality on the one hand and pluralist democratic movements on the other.

A second worry I have is that I would assume key contemporary technoethical discourses to be defined in their historical specificity, and that these specificities would also yield a diversity of actual forms. It isn't simply a matter of irrationality that some people who take a civil libertarian stance on questions of neuroceutical interventions into mood and memory nevertheless express hostility to what seem conceptually analogious civil libertarian positions on questions of access to reproductive technologies to end unwanted pregnancies or facilitate wanted ones, but the fact that these arguments are lodged for some people in the historically separable discourses and commitments of the concrete politics of the so-called "War on Drugs," on the one hand, and the anti-abortion politics of "Life," so-called, on the other.

What I mean to say is simply that, whatever interesting structural, conceptual, and historical relations obtain between them, the fact is that bioethics really isn't exactly the same thing as neuroethics. Neither is it roboethics, or media criticism, or environmental criticism, or existential risk assessment, and so on. I would like to see more interesting work which surveys the field of these technoethical discourses with an eye to their topical and tropological connections but also in a way that does justice to the concrete historical and political specificities of each.

Both of these worries, that influential bioethical and technoethical discourses tend to be insufficently responsive to the actual modal diversity of rational human normativity as well as insufficiently attentive to the actual historical diversity of concrete normative practices, are nudging me into a contrary and compensatory perspective: an affirmation of the plurality of modes of reasonable belief-ascription corresponding to an affirmation of the possibility of a technoscientifically literate and technodevelopmentally democratizing planetary multiculture, alive to the values of equity, diversity, openness, and consent that I might as well describe as technoethical pluralism.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

MundiMuster! Mandate for Peace

Sign the Mandate for Peace!
The people have spoken out through the 2006 mid-term election. By voting out pro-war candidates and changing control over Congress, we have repudiated war policies and issued a mandate for new policies that promote peace and international cooperation. We insist that the newly elected Congress, in its earliest days in office, pass legislation requiring the prompt removal of all US troops from Iraq and discontinue funding for military purposes in Iraq except the safe withdrawal of all U.S. forces.

Join the Mandate for Peace campaign by signing the petition... and helping us bring the troops home from Iraq. Just fill in your name, email address, and your zip/postal code, then click the Sign Now! button.

Monday, October 16, 2006

Today's Random Wilde

Musical people are so absurdly unreasonable. They always want one to be perfectly dumb when one is longing to be absolutely deaf.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

No Aristocrats Need Apply

There are three hundred million citizens in the United States of America. And while some people really are incomparably more qualified than others to assume positions of effective leadership, you can still be sure that for every single one of the people who do manage to find their way through the dreadful sausage machine of a career in politics to eventual high public office there are countless thousands of citizens equally or more qualified who do not. While it is, of course, always absolutely commendable to take up a life of public service no-one, surely, is entitled to a position of leadership in a democracy like we want here in the United States.

Anybody who fails to be content with the service itself, whether or not it eventuates in a position of conspicuous leadership, seems to me to have demonstrated themselves to be unqualified for such leadership, should it be their lot to take up its burden of superlative service.

That is one among many reasons I find the dynastic pretensions of families like the awful criminal Bush clan or the crusty Adams clan before them -- or, yes, the Kennedys, and most certainly the Clintons, too -- to be terribly inappropriate to the American ideal of good democratic governance.

It's not that I don't think a Kennedy or a Clinton or, hell, maybe even some now-fetal Bush might one day make a competent President in the abstract. It's just that it seems to me unseemly, to say the least, to imagine that among the thronging millions of living Americans the members of any one family could pretend that anything other than straightforward privilege could be the factor that would situate more than one of them to the prominence of Executive power in a working democracy. And I simply find it hard to fathom how such obliviousness would easily square with the sensitivity fit for a suitably modest exercise of the vestigial sovereignty that inheres in the American Executive.

The same goes for anybody who says what John Kerry is reported to have said in this piece earlier today: "Americans give people a second chance. And if you learn something and prove you've learned something, maybe even more so. Now, I don't know what I'm going to do yet. We'll make that decision down the road."

I supported John Kerry before many of my peers did last election cycle. I supported him with my words -- of which I have many in abundance -- with my money -- of which I had scarcely any on hand -- and with my vote -- of which I had just the one I was proud and hopeful to cast for him. I think he was a fine candidate, more a man of the left than I expected the debased Party process to produce, and I think he was disgustingly maligned in the 2004 campaign to the eternal shame of the Republican Party. Not that they don't have plenty more, and much worse, to atone for these days.

But, be that as it may, I will not gladly support John Kerry again, nor will I be pleased to find him making another bid for the pinnacle. I think such a bid would be vainglorious and frivolous (as would be Hillary Clinton's, too, frankly) in an historical moment that demands serious commitments and painful choices no careerist will comfortably undertake.

Kerry has his "second chance" to serve his country as a statesman already. The petty calculus another Presidential run will inspire in Kerry is the last thing we have time for from him in a moment like this. I hope he will have the decency and sense to get behind Feingold or Edwards when the time comes to make Presidential noises. But for now he needs to concentrate on the needs of our debauched and devastated democracy, especially the moment his Party manages in November to skew the balance of power enough to demand real accountability from the Killer Clowns running this place for now to the enduring shame and danger of us all.

American democracy needs no self-appointed celebrities or self-satisfied aristocrats in this historical moment, but commited public servants who grasp and respect the ferocious but nonetheless quite fragile forces of People Powered Democracy that have burst on the scene in an era of global digital networked information, communication, and collaboration technologies.

Catching the Drift: More Evidence of the Emerging Technoprogressive Mainstream

[via Majority Action] Find your frame, give it a face, lodge it in a compelling narrative, insert it into the media stream. People Powered Politics for the Emerging Technorpgressive Mainstream...

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Today's Random Wilde

Imagination is a quality given a man to compensate him for what he is not, and a sense of humour was provided to console him for what he is.

Monday, October 09, 2006

Our PreMo President

I adore the blog Hullabaloo and read it nearly every day, especially the posts by its primary contributor “Digby.” But I want to comment briefly here on one of those rare posts of his in which he makes a point that drives me nuts every time I hear it made. Of our current President, Digby writes:
"His words indicate that he sees ‘history’ as the ultimate get out of jail free card. (‘I like to tell people when the final history is written on Iraq, it will look like just a comma.’) Perhaps he truly does believe that he's God's instrument who has no real will of his own and therefore no culpability -- or maybe he's just a nihilist at heart. Whatever his reasons, he seems to have adopted a shallow PoMo-style philosophy that everything is debatable down through time so it doesn't matter what he does.

It is the attribution to Bush of a “PoMo-style philosophy” (a claim reinforced by Digby’s title for the piece: “The PoMo President”) that really annoys me to no end here.

Bush is a gangster, a liar, a dumb smug Aristocrat. His politics are the incredibly familiar politics of self-appointed elites fighting the ongoing emergence and expression of democracy. And, honestly, lying and stealing are just not even remotely what the intellectuals who tend to get corralled together under the heading of “postmodernism” by know-nothings who have usually never read anything by any of the thinkers they are deriding actually have in mind in their diverse writings.

Bush is, if anything, decidedly PreMo, not PoMo.

I simply cannot stress strongly enough that the term “postmodern” is precisely the same kind of term “politically correct” is: Namely, it is a smoke-screen behind which difficult ideas and difficult problems vanish the better to be replaced with clownish caricatures in which unappealing cartoons mouth self-referential incoherencies.

You know, almost nobody calls themselves “politically correct” or “postmodernist.” Almost nobody who takes the relevant ideas seriously would be so foolish as to claim to have accomplished a genuinely postmodern stance or attained a genuinely politically correct sensibility. If anything these are terms that function permanently to undermine certainty in our moral and pragmatic pieties, just so as to keep us open to criticism, open to unexpected voices of protest, open to invigorating change. These are good things, important things, things not to be derided or taken lightly by people of the left.

In fact, it is this very democratizing inculcation of openness that is usually the real target of those who insist most passionately that they discern in “postmodernism” some kind of terrifying “anything goes” relativism or in “political correctness” an attitude of smug superiority.

In almost every case I’ve personally encountered, criticisms of “postmodernism” or “political correctness” have been lodged by know-nothings who haven’t read or otherwise encountered much of the work they imagine they are critiquing so decisively. Too often the critique of “postmodern” relativism is a surrogate justification for unwarranted certainty in one’s own pet platitudes in a demanding era of rapid technoscientific transformation, just as too often the critique of “political correctness” is a surrogate justification for one’s cherished prejudices in a demanding era of pluralist stakeholder politics.

There is a lot of the usual hoo-ing and hah-ing about silly effete elitist academic types that gets unattractively indulged in the moment this sort of argument comes up, whether from the right (from which it makes a basic kind of sense) or, more and more lately, from the left (from which I think it makes no kind of sense at all).

One commentor to Digby’s post suggests, “As soon as I joined the postmodernist debate in graduate school, it was obvious to me that the real winners in the ‘there is no truth’ philosophy would be the right wing.” I can only wish that this person actually read a bit more carefully the texts they were assigned in grad school. It should be quite clear from Digby’s own formulation quoted above that Bush’s problem is not so much his jettisoning of truth as his fundamentalist certainty in the pieties he takes as truth.

Digby points out that it is a conservative “article of faith” –- no pun intended, I assume -– “that liberals ha[ve] no values and [believe] in nothing -- an image that sticks to us like flypaper, even today. Yet nobody has practiced relativism more successfully than the modern Republican party. The Republican President of the United States believes that truth is fungible and history is debated like a highway bill on the floor of the senate -- so it doesn't really matter what he does.” It is hard to know how we are to take this formulation.

It is true that the intellectual views that get tarred with the “postmodern” moniker tend to emphasize that warranted scientific beliefs are defeasible and that our criteria for warranted assertibility give us good beliefs in which we can put confidence but never final ones on which we can confer certainty, and also that warranted moral beliefs differ according to the moral communities which give rise to them and that the political reconciliation of these diverse beliefs must be partial, contingent, and ongoing.

While it is true that it is hard to justify fundamentalist faith or moral insensitivity once one has come to terms with these difficult contemporary worldly knowledges, it is simply wrong to imply that a person who understands the world in these terms has lost their ability to affirm the descriptions of consensus science or advocate reasonable political, moral, ethical, or esthetic positions. Why would a person who affirms a deliberative model of truth-formation and truth-ascription -- as opposed presumably to a model in which truth is a matter of unreflectively accepting one's intuitions or the assertions of priestly authorities -- go from there to the curious "implication" that, somehow, therefore, "it doesn't really matter what [one] does"?

Not to put too fine a point on it, I have come to believe that those who think or claim to think otherwise are either clinging to irrational prejudices or are just too lazy to think about challenging ideas.

Contemporary global technodevelopmental social struggle among contending plural stakeholders confronting pandemic, climate change, weapons proliferation, and global poverty is a struggle that needs the flexibility, responsiveness, and responsibility of democracy. I am inclined to agree with Bruno Latour that rather than claim to be modern or postmodern or post-postmodern or what have you it is best to admit that humanity has never quite managed the feat of “being modern” in the first place. All this is, for me, rather akin to Gandhi’s response to the question of what he thought of western civilization: “I think it would be a good idea.” But none of this reasonable irony and skepticism should give comfort to the cocksure reductionists who rail against the “fashionable nonsense” that presumably prevails in humanities Departments or among mean snot-nosed liberal intellectuals (you know, like me).

Progressive people never have anything to gain from an attitude of anti-intellectualism and any anti-intellectualist politics will ultimately benefit anti-democratic forces, whether it arises first from the right or from the left.