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

Saturday, October 30, 2004

Cackles from the Balcony

Eric points with glee to this juxtoposition of headlines --

"Bush stump speech under constant revision"

"Kerry promises to repair Bush's mistakes"

How the snake-handling racist whites who continue to shill for Commander Codpiece and his Crime Family Circle must be howling at the incessant pile-up of inconvenient facts these days -- why oh why do facts hate Amurrica? why are facts in league with the Beheaders?

Anyway, these days I struggle in the grip of both the ongoing madness of this Election Season (Most Important Election Ever -- to be followed, should Repugnicans manage improbably to steal it again immediately thereafter by the Most Important Impeachment Ever), as well as by the dreary maddening slog through this dissertation of mine, which is growing page by page, day by day. I regret I haven't been posting to the blog more often, since it reminds me how fun writing can be -- I'll be webbing the sections of freshly minted chapters in a few days and soliciting comments and criticisms.

Friday, October 15, 2004

Top Ten Responses to Hypocritical Scumbag Republicans Pretending Outrage About Kerry's Reference to Mary Cheney's Well-Known Lesbianism:

[via MyDD] "I can't believe Kerry said that about Mary Cheney, can you?":

(1) "I know! I guess the Republicans just don't know how to take a compliment!"

(2) "No, but I did hear that 10 more soldiers died this week in Iraq."

(3) "Yes, and did you hear what the President said? He said Mary Cheney should have fewer rights than me and you... unless, of course... are you gay too?"

(4) "I think it took a lot of courage for an extreme right-wing Republican ideologue like Mary Cheney to come out of the closet publicly, just like, you know, it takes courage to face bullets in wartime. And I bet John Kerry admires that in her, all things considered. In fact, I know he does, 'cause he said so at the debate."

(5) "At least John Kerry didn't lie about her war record and denigrate her service to the country. He simply stated something Dick Cheney already told us, and he complimented her for it."

(6) "Mary Cheney? Isn't she Dick Cheney's Lesbian daughter?"

(7) "I didn't watch the debates because I was busy trying to figure out how to pay for the increase in my medical insurance."

(8) "I sure CAN believe John Kerry would point out that Mary Cheney is a person, who didn't choose to be gay just to piss off her dad, but is gay because she was born that way. And if Lynn Cheney has a problem with that, that's her problem. She sure can write good lesbian porn, though, that Lynn Cheney can."

(9) "So what's so bad about being a lesbian?"

(10) "After years of Bush Administration lies it sure is refreshing to hear a politician who calls a spade a spade, a liar a liar, a tax cut for the rich a tax cut for the rich, a disastrous war a disastrous war, and a lesbian a lesbian."

Tuesday, October 12, 2004

Christopher Reeve Wanted to Be Well, Even Better than Well, But This Doesn't Mean He Wanted to Be Superman

There is an editorial in today’s Times written by Michael Gove on the occasion of the death of Christopher Reeve, which meditates on the dread and desire that freights the popular imagination as it contemplates the prospect of enhancement medicine.

There is something quite upsetting and unseemly to my mind in Gove’s editorial, which makes the most of an incidental association of the actor Reeve with the fictional character Superman (Reeve’s most famous film role), and Reeve’s advocacy of enhancement medical research to overcome his own accidental paralysis, an advocacy some mistakenly identify with eugenics as a kind of cult of the Superman idea.

Gove writes:

The research in which Reeve reposed the greatest hope was the development of cures for all manner of conditions from experimentation on stem cells. These cells, which exist in embryos and also in adults, notably in the umbilical cord and in bone marrow, are particularly versatile building blocks of life. They have the potential to repair or regenerate damaged cells and tissue. Scientists have held out the prospect of cures for Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, heart disease and diabetes through their use.

Reeve himself believed that if embryonic stem-cell research had not been impeded by the Bush Administration, then a cure might have been found for his condition in his lifetime. Most scientists doubt very much if that would ever have been the case. But the impression lingers in many minds that the Bush Administration, and others who harbour doubts about embryonic stem-cell research, inhabit a medieval moral universe where outdated religious doctrine prevents science relieving suffering. Reeve compared opposition to embryonic stem-cell research with the attitude of Jehovah’s Witnesses objecting to blood transfusions. And the depiction of President Bush as a prisoner of “the religious Right” certainly plays to the prejudiced impression of an Administration mired in obscurantism.

Although my own opinion on these questions is somewhat more qualified than the form in which they are being attributed to Reeve here, and frankly I think probably Reeve’s own expectations were likewise more qualified, I have to say I deeply sympathize with the words Gove is putting into Reeve’s mouth here.

Gove continues on to say, “Scepticism towards embryonic stem-cell research is not, however, evidence of moral impoverishment and lack of imagination. Quite the opposite.”

I will happily grant Gove some of this point. Quite a lot of the hyperbolic claims made in the name of embryonic stem cell research and other kinds of radical enhancement medical research should be greeted with skepticism. Many of the deep fears and fantasies that freight popular discourse about medical science are unrealistic. And few have adequately considered the consequences of both relatively beneficial and relatively costly impacts of developments in enhancement and longevity medicine humanity is likely to confront quite soon.

But not all skepticism is reasonable just because some of it is.

The title of Gove’s editorial is "We should fear the disturbing future where man becomes superman." But is the future represented by Reeve’s hopes really one in which man becomes superman in the first place? And even if that future has some disturbing paraphernalia about it, is it right to dismiss or repudiate it as only disturbing, only dangerous, only destructive?

My friend, Gui1io Pri5c0, a transhumanist-identified technophile and fellow CybDemite, has reacted to Gove’s editorial with a painful outrage that I have a lot of sympathy for.

What I want to do here is say why I think there is a real validity in both the sentiment he is expressing and the one against which he is reacting, and see if there is a language in which we can express the validity and aspirations of both without losing ourselves in outrage and disgust.

This is important to me because I seem forever strangely torn, seeing the sense in both technophobic fears and technophilic hopes, understanding the relevance of both temperaments to a tech-progressive sensibility, and wondering if there is a way to make use of insights drawn from both.

For me, the key confrontation happens when Gove writes: "To be human is to inhabit a world of vulnerability and limits. The weakness of flesh, and its end in death, frame all human endeavour. Human virtues, certainly as most moral thinkers have understood them, are responses to the fraught nature of our existence." And then Gui1io writes in response: “Then my dog is much more human than me: she is much more stupid and will have a much shorter life. A fly is more human than both. The ‘human dignity’ that apologists of death want for us all, is the dignity of flies.”

I honestly believe that Gove is wrong to draw as the “moral” from Reeve’s own hopes a repudiation of the vulnerability and limits he calls our attention to, but I think that Gui1io’s own reaction to Gove is also curiously perpendicular to Gove’s actual intentions. I have the feeling here of well-meaning people responding symptomatically on the basis of deep unstated assumptions that deserve scrutiny on their actual merits.

Now, first, I want to stress that Gui1io’s outrage and disgust are absolutely valid here. I think that he is in mourning, after all -- and not just for the loss of Reeve. Reeve represents the specter of mortality in the popular imagination at this moment and also reminds us of the probably unnecessary suffering and premature death to which we all and others we likely know and love better than Reeve are vulnerable.

But I have to say that I just don't think it is true that Gove and all of the many others who fear and worry about enhancement and longevity medicine are necessarily foolish or cruel to feel as they do. And I agree with them that anyone who looks to technology to overcome all human limits is leaving the path of wisdom and likely to do as much harm as good.

Now, all my many wise well-meaning and progressive technophilic friends, please read what I am saying before you predictably freak out.

To acquire power is not to become omnipotent. To acquire new capacities is not to lose our vulnerability. To acquire knowledge is not to become omniscient. To increase our wealth is not to overcome the costs of living among peers with whom we differ. To acquire choices is not to gain certainty that our choices will bring us better than other choices might have done. To acquire greater power to transform our traditional limits is not to transcend limits as such, nor to hurdle past the deep quandaries those limits pose to humanity.

It's not that I don't think you all don't know this already. I don't mean to seem patronizing. But I want to stress this side of things to put you in a better position to understand where these worried, distrustful sensibilities are coming from and to learn something from them rather than just repudiating them as ignorant or unreasonable or masochistic.

In the words of the Gove piece against which Gui1io is responding, familiar limits do indeed provide a frame, do provide standards and intelligibility and guidelines and context in which human beings have managed to do their best in making valuable, meaningful, successful lives for themselves. And it is true that once we bound past those limits we do not only gain something, we lose something. This does not mean what we gain is not well worth what we lose, but it is deeply wrong to disavow the loss.

Technology is taking us onto uncharted waters. As Nietzsche says, "Perhaps there has never been such an open sea." Already, we know that with the lack of understanding of our new capacities many devastating consequences will flow.

Wise people are right to worry that the denial of limits, the denial of risks, the denial altogether of the value of what we lose is reckless and apt to be cruel.

Understand me: I think enhancement and longevity can be emancipatory, can increase the space of human freedom and beauty and pleasure. I believe they can make the world more just and more joyful.

But I see very keenly the point of those who worry that advocates of transformative medicine are often bamboozled by hype, disrespectful of differing values, overconfident and disdainful in their views, and prone to suspicious disavowals of the real-world reality of frailty, uncertainty, and intractably difficult choices.

There is sometimes something of the cruelty and inhuman purity of a priestly caste in many of the advocates for technological transcendence, and I fear this impulse as deeply as any bio-conservative you might meet.

Human beings, you know, are valuable right now. Their lives are worthy and precious and meaningful right now.

To insist on this is not to say that dogs are more valuable than human beings. It is not a love of death and unconsciousness that demands we affirm the value of lives framed by these limits. It is a love of the lives that have been defined in the face of these limits in fact.

Now, as we start to chip away at those limits, and we confront new limits, new choices, new problems, the love of those defined by familiar limits provides a key connection between the lives that we know and the ones we will come to know. It reassures us that love and meaning and intelligibility and dignity and comfort will still be available. It reassures us that the new world will not be just for the strong, the resolute, the indifferent, the cruel. For we will *still* be defined by limits in the future. We will transform, but we will not transcend, our limits.

The Gove piece continues on:

"For some scientists the promise inherent in stem-cell research, the cloning of human embryos and the whole burgeoning field of biotechnology, is the prospect of remaking man. The frailties that make up the human condition can, progressively, be eliminated by the manipulation of life's building blocks. Not just life-threatening disease, but all manner of infirmities and imperfections can, potentially, be engineered out of existence. The prospect, if not of Superman, certainly of superior models of man, beckons. The comic- book myth of transcending human constraints has become a modern scientific aspiration."

And Gui1io defiantly concedes his point, writing, “Here the author is right, transcending human constraints has become a modern scientific aspiration.” But is this really true? Does science aspire to transcend all human constraints? Is that even possible? Isn't there a real difference that makes a difference in the aspiration of medicine to reform familiar expectations about human lives and capacities, and the aspiration of some to become invulnerable via such technology?

Gove raises the very familiar and in fact almost inevitable specter of eugenics at this point: "Have we not learnt from those in the past century who wished to remake man, and saw in the lure of genetics the chance to create their own superman? I fear that once we trample over respect for the vulnerable and voiceless in our desire to eliminate frailty, we no longer make weakness our enemy, but make enemies of the weak."

Gui1io angrily repudiates this imputation: Gove, he writes, “tries to scare the reader by making a subliminal analogy with things, like eugenics and nazi, that carry a negative connotation (without having anything to do with the actual issue), and tries to appeal to the social sensibility of the reader with a similarly misguided argument.”

Of course, Gui1io is right to deny that enhancement medicine is tantamount to eugenics. Does Gove think penicillin makes us supermen? Heart translates? In-vitro fertilization?

Enhancement and longevity medicine will hopefully deliver us longer and healthier life-spans than we enjoy at present, and enhance our capacities for the enjoyment of life, and even one day deliver us the capacity to re-write our bodies ever more in the image of our own personal paths of self-creation. There is much in such a vision that inspires both fear and hope, dread and desire, worry and confidence. But Giu1io does not inspire confidence himself when he writes next: “We do not want to make enemies of the weak, we want to make the weak strong. Period.”

Look, who are we to say with confidence we know what is weak, what is strong, what is wrong, what is botched, what is unviable, what is pathological, what is pleasurable, what is worthy?

If enhancement medicine imposes normativity it is sure be an engine of intolerance as much as of empowerment.

Morphological freedom will exacerbate the tensions of difference, and I think Gove’s article and Gui1io’s response to it are a clear expression of this.

Another place where this is sure to come up is when technophiles talk of using technology to overcome “disability”. Progressive technology advocates must be very clear that modification medicine will proliferate the viable forms of human life, not disregard the value of different but viable incarnations of humanity policing people into conformity in the name of "health."

Unless we are careful to insist that modification is proliferative rather than a matter of re-writing humanity in the image of whatever vision of value some particular person or community happens to affirm as best, then it would be absolutely absurd to pretend that the lessons of eugenics are unavailable to us.

Technology advocates would do well not to pretend we are transcending constraints, but to admit that in overcoming familiar constraints we are likely to confront new ones, and that we lose much of the archive we had in how to cope with the old ones as we replace them with new ones.

Again, this isn't to deny it is well worth the risks to embrace the new capacities and pleasures and freedoms of the new world -- but we will seem much more sensible to those who are not enthusiasts but maintain reasonable skepticism if we recognize our fallibility, recognize risks, recognize ambiguity, recognize the need to ensure that development is fair else it certainly will not be.

In closing, let me stress again that I am on the side of those who would embrace enhancement and longevity medicine. I sympathize with the view that there are pragmatic, moral, ethical, and political imperatives to hasten the arrival of technologies that could improve and increase human health and choices and lives.

But I completely see what opponents are worried about, and I see the sense in much of it. I think we must take greater care in making our case to people with whom we differ in our values but with many of whom we will share both the future and the path to it.

Thursday, October 07, 2004

Discussion of Definitions

Hal Finney posted an interesting question about my attempt to delineate a broad tech-progressive sensibility with which to contrast the bio-conservative perspective. My provisional attempt defined tech-progressivism as the "[a]ctive support of technological development and human modification as an emancipatory force. Tech-progressives believe that technological development is empowering and libertory when it is regulated by legitimate democratic and accountable authorities to ensure that its costs, risks, and benefits are all fairly shared by all of the actual stakeholders to that development."

Finney commented:

"There is some ambiguity here. In your first sentence you refer to technological development and human modification, but in the second sentence only to technological development. Did you mean the qualifications in the second sentence to also apply to human modification?

"If so, I am surprised because this would seem to be inconsistent with what I understand about the position of the Left towards the freedom to use mind-altering substances, which I thought was generally supported. Is it that you can freely (i.e. without needing the approval of accountable authorities) use a drug which makes you dumber, but not one that makes you smarter?"

Now, I do mean the qualifications of the second sentence to apply to the first, and I'm not sure why this would seem inconsistent with a conventional left position.

The typical liberal/progressive positions on these questions tend not to end at simply saying people should be able to use drugs if they want to. They tend to include positions about why treatment for addiction should be available to limit social costs of drug use, that education about drug use and its effects be widespread so that individual decisions are informed, that drugs should be legalized in part so that their manufacture and distribution could be better regulated and normalized to minimize health risks and fraud, etc. A good resource for arguments and perspectives with which I broadly sympathize on these issues is the Drug Policy Alliance Website, for example.

I think a tech-progressive politics also includes a conspicuous commitment to research and development of new enhancement and modification technologies, a comparable commitment to securing wide to universal access to them as soon as possible, and to the provision and circulation of accurate information about them. That dimension of things isn't captured quite as well in an analogy to contemporary left/right "Drug War" politics -- although current debates about mandating/forbidding Ritalin use, or prescribing drugs to "cure" children of the capacity to derive pleasure from other drugs is introducing this element into even contemporary drug debates. A good resource for arguments and perspectives with which I broadly sympathize on these issues is the Center for Cognitive Liberty and Ethics Website, for example.

Anyway, I think I have a pretty conventional "lefty" attitude about individual choices in the matter of using drugs, but I think quite a lot is lost if that is read as a straightforward "general support" that just translates to negative freedom.

Definitely I think the racist class-warfare of the disastrous authoritarian puritanical so-called "War on Drugs" should end immediately and that drug policy should be liberalized more generally -- but all of that is quite compatible to my mind with the idea that costs, risks, and benefits associated both with the development and use of drugs (and the more sophisticated technologies for enhancement, modification, and self-creation arriving on the developmental horizon) all be distributed fairly among all the relevant stakeholders at hand.

Hal continues:

"Or did you mean in your definition that tech-progressives support human modification as an emancipatory force, but do not feel so sanguine about technological development (presumably when used for other than human modification)? So people can modify themselves freely, but they can't develop other kinds of technology without government approval? What is the motivation for this distinction, if this interpretation of your definition is correct?"

All technology is prosthetic and so at a certain level all technology politics is modification politics. But I don't like ascending to this level of generality though because important stuff drops out.

Perhaps some anti-enhancement bio-conservatives might embrace a more tech-progressive sensibility on questions of the development of space tech or new energy tech, for example. I'm assuming a tech-progressive pro-morphological freedom advocate will likely embrace tech-progressive attitudes more generally, too, but who knows?

I fear that many of the most interesting and progressive technology advocates who are writing today hold some version of the outlandishly implausible and oversimplified view that progressive technology outcomes will emerge from simply figuring out who the proper "transhumanists" (so-called) are, promoting an identity-politics in their name, and then hoping this movement will "sweep the world."

And so, part of what I'm trying to get at with all of this is the suggestion of broader tendencies, both of them responding to (either reacting against or embracing of) radical technological changes that are afoot around the globe.

I think these sensibilities and their complex, contingent, often seemingly inconsistent positional clashes constitute the actual strategic field on which tech advocates can undertake campaigns and make coalitions to facilitate progressive developmental outcomes in the matters of the pace, scope, deliberateness, democratization, and fair distribution of both positive and negative effects of emerging technologies.

Wednesday, October 06, 2004


All these icky repugnican ads! I keep tossing them onto the url ad filter for scything but they sprout up again like kudzu.

Monday, October 04, 2004

The Emerging Techno-Ethical Terrain: Some Key Definitions

Bio-conservatism: A stance of strong or even total opposition to the genetic, prosthetic, or cognitive modification of human beings. Whether arising from a conventionally right-leaning politics of religious/cultural conservatism or from a conventionally left-leaning politics of environmentalism, bio-conservative positions oppose medical and other technological interventions into what are broadly perceived as current human and cultural limits in the name of a defense of “the natural” deployed as a moral category.

Tech-progressivism: A stance of active support and even enthusiasm for technological development in general and for human practices of genetic, prosthetic, and cognitive modification in particular. Tech-progressives believe that technological developments can be profoundly empowering and emancipatory when they are regulated by legitimate democratic and accountable authorities to ensure that their costs, risks, and benefits are all fairly shared by the actual stakeholders to those developments.

Note that both bio-conservatism and tech-progressivism, in their more reasonable versions, will share an opposition to unsafe, unfair, undemocratic, undeliberative forms of technological development, and both recognize that such developmental modes can facilitate unacceptable recklessness and exploitation, exacerbate injustice, and incubate dangerous social discontent.

I want to emphasize that it is not right to imagine that these sensibilities cleave off into two perfectly separate tribes, squaring off as if on a vast historical playing field for some cosmic-scaled battle. Many individuals will support both bio-conservative and tech-progressive positions on particular issues in the politics of technological development. And most people will sense the tug of reasonableness in particular formulations arising from either broader sensibility from time to time, according to the vicissitudes in their own personal experiences. These two sensibilities, often deeply at odds in particular campaigns of advocacy, activism, policy-making, meaning-making, and education, will nevertheless usually share at least enough common ground for productive dialogue to be possible among their adherents.

It is also crucial to recognize that both bio-conservative and tech-progressive sensibilities, rhetorics, and politics have arisen and exert their force uniquely in consequence of what I describe as the ongoing denaturalization of human life in this historical moment.

This denaturalization is a broad social and cultural tendency, roughly analogous to and probably structurally related to other broad tendencies like, say, secularization and industrialization. It consists essentially of two trends: First, it names a growing suspicion (one that can provoke either fear or hopefulness, sometimes in hyperbolic forms) of the normative and ideological force of claims made in the name of “nature” and especially "human nature," inspired by a recognition of the destabilizing impact of technological developments on given capacities and social norms. Second, it consists of an awareness of the extent to which the terms and pace of technological development, and the distribution of its costs, risks, and benefits, is emerging ever more conspicuously as the primary space of social struggle around the globe.

It is a truism that the technical means to eliminate poverty and illiteracy for every human being on earth have existed since the eighteenth century, but that social forms and political will have consistently frustrated these ends. The focus for most tech-progressives remains to use emerging technologies to transform the administration of social needs, to provide shelter, nutrition, healthcare, and education for all. To this end, a deepening and widening of democratic participation in and accountability of governance through emerging networked information and communication technologies is also crucial. Beyond this, many tech-progressives also champion the idea of morphological freedom, or consensual practices of genetic, prosthetic, and cognitive modification considered as personal practices of self-creation rather than as the technological imposition of social conformity figured questionably as "health."

It is difficult in my view to see how bio-conservative defenses of “human nature” could finally help us much in these worthy democratizing projects. I do not mean to be dismissive of humanism, but it seems to me that historically speaking the so-called universal accomplishments celebrated under the banner of humanism from the Renaissance to the present day have rarely been available to more than a privileged group of males, and occasionally a few females, within strictly limited socioeconomic strata. Even at its most capacious, any anthropocentric human-racist grounding of ethics will stand perplexed in the face of the demand of Great Apes, dolphins, and other nonhuman animals for standing and respect. Further, the category of “humanity” seems rarely to have provided much protective cover for even fully sane, mature, "exemplary" human beings caught up in the genocidal technoconstituted dislocations of the modern era.

A number of post-humanist discourses have emerged to register these dissatisfactions with the limitations of the traditional humanist project. It is important to recognize that the "post-human" does not have to conjure up the possibly frightening or tragic spectacle of a posthumous humanity, an end to the best aspirations of human civilization, or even an outright repudiation of humanism itself, so much as a new effort emerging out of humanism, a moving on from humanism as a point of departure, a demanding of something new from it, perhaps the demand that humanism live up to its universalizing self-image for once.

Bio-conservatives often express a general fear that new technologies will "rob" us of our humanity. But for me the essence of our humanity, if there could be such a thing, is simply our capacity to explore together what it means to be human. No sect, no tribe, no system of belief owns what it means to be human. I believe prosthetic practices are contributions to the conversation we are having about what humanity is capable of, and those who want to freeze that conversation in the image of their pet platitudes risk violating that "humanity" just as surely as any reckless experimentalism would.

I believe we have all grown too queer and too prostheticized to be much seduced by the language of innocent “nature,” or sweet bio-conservative paeans to the so-called “human dignity” and "deeper meaning" to be found in pain and suffering from potentially treatable diseases. Tech-progressives believe that we can demand fairness, sustainability, responsibility, and freedom from the forces of technological development in which we are all immersed and in which we are all collaborating, and that this demand is the contribution of this living generation to the ongoing conversation of humankind.

Jefferson on "The Global Test"

"When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation." Ah, them librul Founding Fathers with their silly mixed messages and Frenchified ways....

Saturday, October 02, 2004

Cackles from the Balcony (Hot Fruit! Edition)

The DVD for the third and final season of Strangers With Candy just came out, and Eric brought it home, damn his hide. Urge... to avoid... dissertation... rising...