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

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Mars Raver

It's been another low-posting time, I know. Teaching, writing, and preparations for the job market are consuming huge amounts of my energies right now. Not that I'm complaining -- I'm teaching Plato's Symposium in one class tomorrow and Marx and Engels' The German Ideology in another... what's not to like?

Whenever I'm not grading or prepping or writing I'm usually pretty spent... not good for much but watching "So You Think You Can Dance?" or counting down the hours to the next "Battlestar Galactica" ep... But on the long train ride from Oakland over to the City where I'm teaching this term, I do have some time to myself and I've been using it to re-read yet again Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars Trilogy, a hard-scientific utopian technoprogressive masterpiece that represents for me, along with Bruce Sterling's Holy Fire, the great accomplishment of 1990s sf (I mean that on a personal level, so no bellyachin' about novels I've overlooked in saying this -- I know there are many, many, many other great ones to choose from!). Anyway, here's a quote from early on in Volume One, Red Mars, that reminds me quite a lot of the market naturalist technophiles and weirdly socially complacent and "anti-political" technology enthusiasts (who in "disdaining" politics overwhelmingly often essentially endorse conservative politics):
"We have come to Mars for good. We are going to make not only our homes and our food, but also our water and the very air we breathe -- all on a planet that has none of these things. We can do this because we have technology to manipulate matter right down to the molecular level. This is an extraordinary ability, think of it! And yet some of us here can accept transforming the entire physical reality of this planet, without doing a single thing to change ourselves, or the way we live. To be twenty-first century scientists on Mars, in fact, but at the same time living within nineteenth-century social systems, based on seventeenth-century ideologies. It's absurd, it's crazy, it's -- it's --" he seized his head in his hands, tugged at his hair, roared "It's unscientific! And so I say that among all the many things we transform on Mars, ourselves and our social reality should be among them. We must terraform not only Mars, but ourselves."

A small vulnerable band of colonists on their way to make a life on a world they are not as easily fit for as they are the world they leave behind and for which they have evolved to thrive... As often happens in science fiction, the situation of the protagonists strikes a curiously contemporary chord, suggests analogies that resonate into our present circumstances.

One way to distinguish the ancient from the modern (a quarrel with many dimensions in metaphysics, politics, esthetics, ethics, social forms, etc.) is to note how often ancient moral orders seem to be illuminated by recourse to tales of mythical pasts while modern moral orders locate their justifications in mythical futures: on the one hand elites fighting long slow noble defeats by means of which they testify to their excellence, against the mobilization, on the other hand, of majorities with promises of an amelioration of hardship for the many and of a better world to come for all.

Anyway, it is easy to have an imaginative investment in the circumstances of Robinson's Martian colonists not only because we can readily project a time within the lives of many now living in which such colonists may well find themselves in the situation of his protagonists. But in a more compelling and provocative sense we are all of us already there.

The earth as it is is not the earth for which our ancestors evolved. Humanity has already prostheticized itself beyond reclamation or recognition. The earth is likewise already prostheticized beyond reclamation or recognition. None of us has seen a preindustrial dawn or sunset. None of us has known a wilderness that was not a themepark. None of us inhabits a body shaped less by the legacies of culture than by genetics. There is no wilderness for us to retreat to, there is no Eden for us to shelter in.

Earthly survival requires that we terraform the earth for the benefit of all humanity. The seventeenth century ideologies, the nineteenth century social systems, the twentieth century internationalisms (among them ghastly totalitarianisms) were all ladders we've climbed to get us where we are, and we can kick them aside now that we have found ourselves here. The programmatic concerns of technoprogressives with sustainable and deliberative global development, democratic global governance, global basic income and basic healthcare, global peer-to-peer civic and scientific collaboration and social administration, and funding of emancipatory technologies for the good of all are not romantic fantasies but constitute the palpable terrain of this unearthly earth we are making or unmaking together, come what may.

The problems we have are global problems: we bear the imprint of a global climate we have changed, we exchange goods and words and hopes via conspicuously contingent global protocols (including the ones that get called "free markets" by the ones who benefit from the present arrangements), we differentially benefit and suffer from the disposition of global laws, we are all immersed in the flow of terrible and promising disruptive technological change. In such a world it isn't sentimentality to agree with Dr. King that injustice anywhere is injustice everywhere. We can make a home in the world, but it won't a natural place for we are not natural people. We are not ancients, even if we sometimes seem too nostalgic and too lazy and too scared to be moderns.

2 comments:

Russel said...

Hi

Forgive me for lurking [OK, I'm on my 2nd beer] but aside from "The earth as it is is not the earth for which our ancestors evolved."
...I have to disagree with your comments:

"None of us has known a wilderness that was not a themepark. ... There is no wilderness for us to retreat to, there is no Eden for us to shelter in."

I am a South African and as such, I cannot recommend more than that you experience life in Africa. There are wilderness' without themeparks; bodies shaped by life and wilderness upon wilderness to retreat to. It's not Eden, but it's Africa, where First Man was born.

"We can make a home in the world, but it won't a natural place for we are not natural people. We are not ancients, even if we sometimes seem too nostalgic and too lazy and too scared to be moderns."

Writing +15000 years before Christ an ancient Egyptian poet [the site is down so I can't give you more data :(] described the futility of life, and how worthless it is to strive for wealth and power. He wrote that death is the great equaliser and so we should all strive to live in peace with our neighbours and live a life steeped in spirituality.

What can I say, other than, mankind has struggled with these questions for more than 3500 years. And the answers are the same. It's tough being human.

Russel said...

Sorry that should be 1500 years. Too much beer...