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

Thursday, June 30, 2005

Technoprogressivism Beyond Technophilia and Technophobia

Part I.
Technocentrism, Technophilia, and Technophobia

A technophile is a person to whom we attribute a naïve or uncritical enthusiasm for technology, while a technophobe is a person to whom we attribute a no less uncritical dread of or hostility to technology. But what does it tell us that there is no comparably familiar word simply to describe a person who is focused on the impact of technology in a critical way that is attentive both to its promises and its dangers?

Why is it that any technocentric perspective on cultural, historical, political, and social questions is always imagined to be either uncritically technophilic or technophobic? Is it really so impossible to conceive of a critical technocentrism equally alive to real promises and alert to real dangers?

I think the lack of such a word ready to hand bespeaks profound and in fact dangerous limitations in the way we understand the role of technological developments in our lives, in the hopes and fears with which we invest them, and in our capacity to take up these developments and actively shape them in ways that better reflect our hopes.

Because I believe that technological development is the last remaining historical force abroad in the world that could plausibly be described as potentially revolutionary, and because I believe that we might make of technological development our most tangible hope that humanity might truly and finally eliminate poverty, needless suffering, illiteracy, exploitation, inequality before the law, and social injustice for everyone on earth I am often mistaken for a technophile.

And because I believe that whenever technological development fails to be governed by legitimate democratic processes, whenever it is driven instead by parochial national, corporate, or cultural interests, that it will almost always be a profoundly dangerous and often devastating force, exacerbating existing inequalities, facilitating exploitation, exaggerating legitimate discontent and thereby encouraging dangerous social instabilities, threatening unprecedented risks and inflicting unprecedented harms on individuals, societies, species, and the environment as a whole I am often mistaken for a technophobe.

Within the lifetimes of many millions of human beings now living, emerging genetic, prosthetic, and cognitive medical technologies will likely provide at least some of us the means with which to eliminate many diseases and renegotiate lifespans, as well as to render traits of basic morphology and temperament radically more discretionary. With proper support, new renewable energy technologies could provide abundant, clean, and inexpensive alternatives to fossil fuels for developing societies, while new biotechnologies and sustainable polycultural practices could reinvent agriculture to feed burgeoning populations or to engineer microorganisms to help reverse the damage of extractive industries on the planet’s ecosystem. Emerging digital networked information and communication technologies are already reshaping global cultures and economies, and are providing new tools to facilitate collaboration and proliferate intelligence, invention, and criticism. With these tools we could expand the reach and force of democratic experimentalism and cultures of consent, support more representative and accountable authoritative global institutions, and help secure the rights of humanity around the world.

I regularly distinguish between two broadly technocentric contemporary sensibilities that seem inevitably to arise in response to the prospect of such developments or to the appearance on the scene of their precursors today: technoprogressivism and bioconservatism.

Technoprogressivism and Bioconservatism

Technoprogressivisms assume that technoscientific developments should be and can be democratizing, sustainable, and emancipatory so long as they are regulated by legitimate democratic processes and accountable authorities to ensure that their costs, risks and benefits are all fairly shared by the actual stakeholders to those developments. Technoprogressive stances variously support such technoscientific development in general, and tend to take up strong positions of support for peer to peer network formations, and informed, nonduressed consensual human practices of genetic, prosthetic, and cognitive self-determination and modification in particular.

Bioconservatives on the other hand, tend to be hesitant and conspicuously skeptical about technological development in general and tend to take up strong positions of opposition to (especially emerging or unfamiliar) practices of genetic, prosthetic or cognitive modification of human beings in particular. Whether arising from what is conventionally construed as a right-leaning politics of religious/cultural conservatism or from what is conventionally construed as a left-leaning politics of Deep Ecology, bioconservative positions tend to oppose medical and other technological interventions into what are broadly perceived as current human and cultural limits, usually in the name of a defense of "the natural" deployed as a moral category.

There are also, as it happens, a number of technophiles who combine a faith in some variation of neoliberal market-fundamentalist "laissez-faire" ideology -- familiar from the nineteenth century as a rationale for brutal British colonialism and for the injustices of America's corrupt Gilded Age -- with an enthusiasm for certain actually existing techniques but also sometimes for certain idealized non-existing technological devices (like strong artificial intelligence, molecular manufacturing, rejuvenation medicine, digital mind uploading, general purpose robots, immersive virtual reality, and so on). These retro-futurists do not lodge their own conservative politics in the asserted defense of a parochially "naturalized" body (indeed, they often celebrate the technoscientific obliteration of the body in the flows of digital information or, more to the point, global capital), but in the asserted defense of a parochially "naturalized" market order and of the "emancipatory" energies of innovation it is said uniquely to unleash. Despite their key differences it is especially interesting to observe the continuity of bioconservative and retro-futurist defenses of incumbent interests through the invocation of a defense of "nature" and in their shared denigration of genuinely democratic stakeholder deliberation over the costs, risks, and benefits of technoscientific changes that affect them.

At the heart of most technoprogressive perspectives and recommendations one finds the insistence that whenever we talk about "progress" we must always keep equally in mind and in hand both its scientific/instrumental dimensions but also its political/moral ones. From a technoprogressive perspective, then, technological progress without progress toward a more just distribution of the costs, risks, and benefits of that technological development will not be regarded as true "progress" at all. At the same time, and this is a key and complementary point, for most technoprogressive critics and advocates progress toward better democracy, greater fairness, social security, more education, less violence, a wider rights culture and affirmation of consent are all desirable but inadequate in themselves to confront the now inescapable technoconstituted quandaries of contemporary life unless they are accompanied by technoscientific progress to support and implement these values.

In their more reasonable versions, both technoprogressivisms and bioconservatisms will oppose unsafe, unfair, unsustainable, undemocratic, undeliberative forms of technoscientific development, and both recognize that such developmental modes can facilitate unacceptable recklessness and exploitation, exacerbate injustice and incubate dangerous social discontent. Almost everyone will feel the compelling tug of reasonableness in particular formulations arising from either broader sensibility from time to time, according to their own personal experiences and hopes. These two sensibilities, often deeply at odds in particular campaigns of advocacy, activism, policymaking, 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 bioconservative and technoprogressive sensibilities, rhetorics, and politics have arisen and exert their force uniquely in consequence of what I would describe as the ongoing denaturalization of human life in this historical moment.

This denaturalization is a broad and ramifying social and cultural tendency, roughly analogous to and often structurally related to other planetary-historical forces like, say, the various secularizations, industrializations, globalizations in play. What I am calling "denaturalization" in particular consists essentially of two trends: First, denaturalization names a growing suspicion (one that can provoke either fear or hopefulness, often 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, denaturalization consists of an awareness of the extent to which the terms and pace of technoscientific developments, and the distribution of their 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 presumably existed since the eighteenth century, but that archaic social forms and antidemocratic political will have consistently frustrated these ends. The focus for most technoprogressives 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, administration, and developmental deliberation through emerging networked information and communication technologies is likewise crucial for most technoprogressives, to better ensure the realism, responsiveness, and responsibility of that governance and administration. For technoprogressives, then, the imperative is always: Using Technology to Deepen Democracy, Using Democracy to Ensure Technology Benefits Us All.

Humanist and Post-Humanist Humanitarianisms

Above all, it is difficult for most technoprogressives to see how bioconservative defenses of what provincially passes at the moment for "human nature" could finally help any of us much in these worthy democratizing projects. This attitude need not be actively dismissive of the aspirations of humanism, but it does seem to many technoprogressives 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 positions. 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 a 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.

Bioconservatives often express a general fear that new technologies will "rob" us of our humanity. But for technnoprogressives 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 in the world we share. Surely, no sect, no tribe, no system of belief owns what it means to be human. Technoprogressives tend to believe that our personal and collective prosthetic practices are contributions to the conversation we are having about what humanity is capable of, and that 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.

Technoprogressives seem to share a sense that we humans have all grown too queer and too prostheticized to be much seduced by the language of innocent "nature," or sweet bioconservative paeans to the so-called "human dignity" or to the "deeper meaning" to be found in pain and suffering from potentially treatable diseases. Most technoprogressives believe that we should 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.

Part II.
Live Long and Prosper: A Program of Technoprogressive Social Democracy

The most legitimate concern of some sensible bioconservatives (and of those who tend to sympathize with their arguments for now), and certainly of most technoprogressives, is that the rich and powerful will enjoy medical "enhancement" and longevity long before the rest of us do, or that powerful elites will control digital surveillance technologies or unprecedented nanotechnological capacities that will consolidate their power in unimaginable ways.

The NBIC convergence of nanoscale technologies, biomedical technologies, information technologies, and cognitive/neuroceutical technologies promises unprecedented human emancipation but threatens no less than the literal rewriting of social injustice as a form of dreadful speciation.

I want to propose the following initial, provisional programmatic redress of social injustice as an indispensable part of a properly technoprogressive politics of radical, disruptive technodevelopmental social struggle. Comparably technoprogressive alternative recommendations are welcome and even necessary, of course, and quite likely to be abundant soon enough:

A First Technoprogressive Campaign: The Basic Income Guarantee (BIG)

Technoprogressives must demand a basic income guarantee as an indispensable complement to any general championing of disruptive technological developments. This would effectively eliminate poverty from social life and sustain every citizen as a stakeholder with enough freedom to contract the terms of their participation in society as they see fit. This income (together with a life-long stakeholder grant in education and retraining) would foreground the value of citizen participation in a properly technoprogressive democratic civilization, empowering citizens to contribute free creative content, including technoscientific research and development, to participate in new collaborative forms of media oversight and policy deliberation, in addition to voting on policy-measures and representatives for public office.

The public provision of a basic life-long guaranteed income should be thought of first of all as the implementation of safeguards against arbitrary misuses of authority in peoples' workplaces. It would provide everybody with the means to "opt out" of the current circumstances in which they attain their livelihoods. Thus, it would provide a constant check on misuses of power in the workplace by institutionalizing a permanent position of security from which workers could renegotiate the terms of their employment and demand redress for abuses without fear of unjust reprisals. It would also encourage people to grow and take chances, try new things, learn new skills, invest in new enterprises to the benefit of all, and all without the threat of utter devastation to bedevil and constrain them. A world with a basic income guarantee would still be a world in which many worked for profit, surely, and in which many more would work voluntarily in projects that are especially important or satisfying to them, or provided unique benefits for them.

These entitlements would enlist world citizens in incomparable peer-to-peer projects to establish justice, ensure local tranquility, provide global security, and promote general welfare both as citizen-critics on global networks, providing media oversight, problem-solving, free creative content, participatory sousveillence, developmental policy deliberation as well as compensating us (and substantiating our capacity for real consent) as we assume more and more risks and lose a real measure of customary privacy in our emerging role as experimental citizen-subjects, as indispensable "data-points" in global experimental projects to hasten and regulate emerging longevity and modification medicine.

It is crucial to remember that media have always been publicly subsidized. Even in relatively “minarchist” Founding-Era America the architects of the republic recognized the indispensability of media to workable continental-scaled democracy: hence, the establishment of a postal service and roadways, and later the subsidization and regulation of every media form as it emerged on the scene, from telegraphy, radio, telephony, television, cable, right up to the recent creation and support of the internet. A basic income guarantee can be defended as a comparable subsidization of peer-to-peer networks and media (including collaborative forms of in-depth security and surveillance/sousveillance) on this view, quite apart from its many other justifications.

Progressives defend basic income guarantees as the deferred fulfillment of the emancipatory promise of struggles against slavery and conscription by eliminating at last the economic duress that compels so many today into wage slavery and voluntary armies doing the bloody-minded business of corporate-military elites. To these defences, technoprogressives add that basic income guarantees also provide ways to empower resistance to techodevelopmental outcomes favored exclusively by elites, as well as to ameliorate conspicuous anti-democratic concentrations of wealth faciliated by automation. I describe such pernicious technoconstituted wealth concentration, together with the technodevelopmental dislocations faciliated by sophisticated communications and transportation networks as technodevelopmental abjection (notice that discussions of the "outsourcing" of jobs can often be usefully translated into these terms and hence connected directly to jobs lost more obviously to automation).

A Second Technoprogressive Campaign: Universal Single-Payer Healthcare and Consensual Prosthetic Self-Determination

Technoprogressives must demand universal basic health care provision as well as a stakeholder grant to support some lifelong consensual recourse to modification medicine as an indispensable complement to any general championing of research, development, and the support of genetic, prosthetic, and cognitive medicine. This effectively eliminates the greatest threat to the lives of the relatively less powerful (unecessary suffering, the burdens of untreated illness, as well as powerful pressures to engage in any unwanted treatments and modifications) and enlists every citizen as a participant in a civilization-wide peer-to-peer collaborative experiment in better-than-well health-care provision and rejuvination medicine. This stakeholder grant in healthcare and enhancement would foreground the value of medical self-determination in our democratic civilization, empowering citizens to enage in proliferating projects of consensual self-creation, as peers celebrating a prostheticized reimagination of embodied lifeway multiculture.

For democrats and technoprogressives social justice cannot tolerate unequal distributions of authority beyond a certain point (we are, I fear, past that point at present in the precarious North Atlantic democracies) —- but it is just as true that our sense of justice demands the preservation and celebration of inequality in its forms as distinction and diversity. For me, the key here is to champion what I describe as a Culture of Consent.

So long as a trait does not render the scene of consent illegible -- the expressed need for sexual reassignment, valuing deafness, or the exhibition of mild autism, among countless other things, all seem to me clear examples of such traits -- then it seems to me that advocates of a culture of consent cannot properly deny any citizens who incarnate such a trait as a part of their own personhood either

(a) the validity of any of their performances of consent on that basis or

(b) the consensual recourse to modification medicine to come to exhibit that trait or the consensual restraint from modification so as to maintain the trait.

It is crucial to realize that legibility of consent is a weaker standard than, say, "optimality" (on whatever construal) would be -- and that it is a weaker standard for a reason: Too restrictive a standard will likely skew the difficult balance between the democratic value of informed, nonduressed consent (which, to be substantial rather than vacuous has to be propped up with universal standards on contentious questions of basic health and general welfare), and the no less democratic value of diversity.

People of good will can argue about the extent to which an "optimal" scene of consent might properly be encouraged or discouraged via strategies of subsidization and such, whether in the name of administrative economies, general welfare, or what have you. But the simple fact is that anybody who advocates both a substantive vision of the general welfare as well as for the value of diversity is eventually going to stumble onto fraught moments when they have to figure out how to reconcile these values on the ground.

I do personally think the legible, informed, nonduressed consent of citizens is the key to work through some of these difficulties, but it has to involve a substantive rather than vacuous commitment to consent. That is to say, to be legitimate, the scene of consent needs to be shored up with all sorts of assurances against misinformation, ignorance, force, and duress that don't presently prevail for the most part. Also, the standard of legible consent must be a standard weak enough to incubate a real proliferation of consensual performances rather than a standard so strong that it imposes conformity... and yet the standard must be strong enough to ensure that "consent" doesn't become an alibi for violation, exploitation, or neglect.

A Third Technoprogressive Campaign: Democratic World Federalism

Technoprogressives must demand the implementation of democratic world federalism, because planetary problems demand planetary governance and because only democratic governance is legitimate governance.

Technodevelopmental social struggle takes place on a planetary stage and its proper stakeholders are not confined to any nation, culture, region, class, race, gender, or faith. All human beings inhabit and impact the same indispensable biosphere and environment, just as all are threatened by its vulnerability to human recklessness. All human beings produce, consume, collaborate, and trade through a globe-girdling ritual artifice of norms, laws, and protocols, all of us ineradicably interdependent, beholden to a common inheritance of creative intelligence and accomplishment, just as we are all threatened by exceptionalist interpretations of norms, selective applications of law, or unfair protocols articulating production and trade. All human beings benefit from the security of their planetary fellows in their rights, the legitimacy of their governments, their general commonwealth and shared stake in an open future, just as all of us are threatened by the violation of rights, the decay of democractic legitimacy, and the abjection of poverty, stigma, violence, or hopelessness anywhere else on earth.

Global information and communication networks foreground the inequities of the North Atlantic postcolonial inter-national system of global governance to everyone within their reach, while disseminating the expectations of the beneficiaries of that system across the globe, exacerbating the vulnerability of that system beyond its capacity to accommodate. Where this system has not already failed, it is presently failing.

The popular culture and official rhetoric of democracy in contemporary North Atlantic industrial societies has of course only too rarely been matched by democratic realities on the ground. Nevertheless, that culture and rhetoric of popular democracy is a marvelously fertile ground, endlessly provocative of efforts of education, agitation, and organization for actual deepening democratization in these societies. Meanwhile, the now-customary but eerily delusive expectations of continued prosperity among the inhabitants of these societies -- arising in fact from an unsustainable bubble of cheap oil, from the destabilizing gunboat diplomacy of literally mad, profligate "defense" expenditures and an imperial archipelago of global military bases, and from the ongoing technodevelopmental exploitation of especially the postcolonial nations of the "Third World" -- all likewise poise us at the knife-edge of catastrophic social discontent the moment their pampered beneficiaries are forced by inevitably changing circumstances to pay the real price (nonsubsidized costs, nonduressed costs, environmental costs, etc.) of these unearned or ill-gotten goods and privileges.

Since the tools of violence at the disposal of discontent are now capable of unprecedented destructive power it is crucial that we constrain its expression within the legitimacy of democratic governance, general welfare, and the provision of a legible space for the noncoercive adjudication of social disputes.

There are, as it happens, already a number of progressive campaigns afoot to democratize global governance, whether through the democratic reform and strengthening of existing institutions like the United Nations, the International Criminal Court, the International Labor Organization, through direct action by way of global people's movements for peace, human rights, fair trade, sustainability, transparency, or through a combination of these and similar campaigns. To an important extent the work to implement these different pathways toward global democracy are complementary, and what matters most is to grasp that some form of democratic world federalism is indispensable to global social intercourse, not in some far flung future but in the world today, just as democratic government is indispensable at whatever scale social intercourse has taken up, hitherto.

Conventional Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) cannot provide governmental legitimacy precisely because they are not democratically representative bodies, and neither can conventional states because the terrain on which the key problems are playing out (climate change, human rights violations, unfair trade, uneven development, weapons proliferation) is planetary and because too many of the crucial actors on the contemporary terrain are not national but networked.

It is crucial that global governance fund its activities through progressive taxation and then that it legitimize its taxation through legible representation and the substantiation of informed, nonduressed consent and human rights culture. If this development does not occur, then corporate-militarism will continue to define the global political terrain instead and it is difficult to imagine that humanity will survive this state of affairs for long.

Corporate-militarism, that is to say, neoliberal-neoconservative globalization (or "Free Trade") lacks the institutional intelligence to respond adequately to information that is not immediately profitable (hence a tendency to short-term over long-term thinking, and hence a disastrous tendency underestimate wider social costs and risks), nor to respond to the needs of technodevelopmental stakeholders who are not familiar or proximate (hence a tendency disastrously to exacerbate social discontent). In the emerging political terrain these inadequacies fatally encourage environmental collapse, incubate and facilitate genocidal violences, and produce the conditions in which WMD are ever more likely to be deployed.

What passes for global “Free Trade,” then, is not just facile and flawed ideology, but has come to represent an Existential Risk to human survival.

From Progressive to Technoprogressive

Of course, there are already various serious progressive campaigns at work to implement basic income guarantees, universal healthcare, global education, and democratic world federalism. Technoprogressive critique, education, agitation, and organizing identifies new connections among these familiar radical democratic struggles and hence promises to reinvigorate them. Technoprogressive perspectives are sensitive to different historical stakes amidst the unprecedented dangers and promises of disruptive technoscience, and also recognize different strategic opportunities across the dynamic technodevelopmental terrain on which these struggles are unfolding. But those who imagine that "technoprogressive" politics will amount to an endless indulgence in pet "futurist" utopias and dystopias, the substitution of proximate planning with far-flung fixations on medical immortalization, robot armies, nanogoo, traversible wormholes, and such will be, I fear, rather disappointed by my own understanding of the term and by the rather familiar radical democratic priorities that arise from that understanding.

It is crucial to grasp that the main distinction between technoprogressive and bioconservative political orientations is not a matter of whether one's politics are "tech-positive" or "tech-negative," since "technology" really has no interesting political existence at that level of generality. What is wanted are technodevelopmental outcomes that are democratizing, consensual, sustainable, emancipatory, and fair. What must be resisted are technodevelopmental outcomes that consolidate elites, are nonconsensual, unsustainable, exploitative, and unfair. For technoprogressives sensitive to the unprecedented problems and promises of ongoing and upcoming technoscientific developments, a global basic income guarantee, universal healthcare and education, and democratic world federalism will provide the context most likely to facilitate progressive, democratic, sustainable technodevelopmental outcomes.

Through our technology we have seen the earth from orbit and we can never again mistake a neighborhood or even a nation for the World. We know the problems of unsustainable consumption and extractive industry are problems we are all of us equally heir to, as we know that militarism is also always farcically parochial. Through our technology we have seen the faces and heard the voices of people across the earth and we can never again reasonably deny that they are our peers and collaborators in the making of the World, whatever nation or culture they hail from. We know they deserve a say in the public decisions that affect them, we know that we stand to benefit from the testimony of their experience and desire, we know that unless they have the standing of bearers of rights that our own standing is imperiled by its denial to them.

We know the World is not flat.

Only by tearing our technology from our hands, only by crushing the knowledge out of our bodies and brains could we "go back," whatever that would mean.

There is no choice but to embrace the planet that has become the World we live in.

It is difficult to restrain the impression today that there is a catastrophic ongoing exacerbation of senseless environmental damage, a deep and bloody tide of historical and ongoing violation, unfairness, and conscpiuous indifference all of which will demand their payment all too soon. We must constrain that violence in legitimate democratic governance, ameliorate it through the global administration of general welfare, compensate it with the magnificent bribe of secularization, a basic income guarantee, universal basic healthcare, lifetime education, therapy, and retraining, renewable energy, free software and subsidized peer-to-peer content and oversight provision. If progressives succeed in this great work, only then can we be sure that humanity will survive to achieve the blessings of technoscientific emancipation technoprogressives more uniquely hope for, environmental remediation, superorganic foodstuffs, an abiding longevity dividend, an unprecedented abundance secured from the marriage of free software and nanoscale manufacturing, and even a space elevator into a solar diaspora to provide the restless, the reckless, and the brave with a new and expanding frontier.

Part III.
The Politics of Morphological Freedom

Morphological freedom (or prosthetic self-determination) is a discourse which designates and elaborates the idea that human beings have the right either to maintain or to modify their own bodies, on their own terms, through informed, nonduressed, consensual recourse to -- or refusal of -- available remedial or modification medicine.

The politics of morphological freedom expresses commitments to the value, standing, and social legibility of the widest possible (and an ever-expanding) variety of desired morphologies and lifeways. These politics tend to become especially controversial when they defend the preservation of actually desired atypical capacities and lifeways that are stigmatized as "disability" or otherwise "suboptimal," or when they defend actually desired modifications that constitute the introduction of atypical capacities and lifeways that are stigmatized as "perverse" or otherwise "unnatural."

The politics of morphological freedom and prosthetic self-determination seem legible to me as fairly straightforward political and cultural expressions of prevailing North Atlantic attitudes of liberal pluralism, secularism, progressive cosmopolitanism, and (post)humanist multiculturalisms as they apply to an era of disruptive planetary technoscientific change, and especially to the ongoing and palpably upcoming transformation of the understanding of medical practice from one of conventional remedy to one of consensual self-creation, via genetic, prosthetic, and cognitive modification.

I first encountered the term “morphological freedom” in a short paper by neuroscientist Anders Sandberg, and I have taken up and extended the term (for example here and here) myself in ways that may well differ in some respects from Sandberg’s initial formulation.

Sandberg defines morphological freedom quite simply as "the right to modify oneself according to one’s desires." In Sandberg’s formulation, the right to morphological freedom derives from a conventional liberal doctrine of bodily self-ownership and amounts, more or less, to a straightforward application of negative liberty to the situation of modification medicine. The political force of such a commitment under contemporary conditions of disruptive technoscientific change is quite clear: It appeals to widely affirmed liberal intuitions about individual liberty, choice, and autonomy in order to trump bioconservative agendas that seek to slow, limit, or altogether prohibit potentially desirable medical research and individually valued therapeutic practices, usually because they are taken to threaten established social and cultural norms.

But I worry that this formulation of morphological freedom, however initially appealing and sensible it may seem, is fraught with the quandaries that bedevil all exclusively negative libertarian accounts of freedom. The visceral, well-nigh universal, and hence foundational force of our intuitions about the indubitability of bodily “self-ownership,” for example, never seamlessly nor unproblematically connect to the historically specific entitlements and protocols that will claim to be derived from the foundation of this indubitability. In consequence, such foundational gestures always mobilize compensatory rhetorical projects to deny and disavow the many possible (some of them desired) alternate available formulations of entitlements and protocols compatible with the selfsame foundation. These projects to “naturalize” and hence depoliticize what are in fact historically contingent and vulnerable conventions inevitably privilege certain established constituencies over others, and so just as inevitably eventuate in some form or other of conservative politics.

In my own understanding of the term, the commitment to morphological freedom derives primarily and equally from positive commitments to diversity and to consent, conceived as public values, public goods, and, crucially, as public scenes that depend for their continued existence on supportive normative, legal, and institutional contexts the maintenance of which exact costs that must be fairly borne by all their beneficiaries.

The force of the commitment to diversity implies that the politics of morphological freedom and prosthetic self-determination will properly apply as much to those who would make consensual recourse to desired remedial or modification medicine as it does to those who would refrain from such medicine. I disapprove of the strong bias in favor of intervention and modification at the heart of many current formulations of the principle of morphological freedom. While this bias is quite understandable given the precisely contrary bias of the bioconservative politics the principle is intended to combat, I worry that an interventionist bias will threaten to circumscribe the range of morphological and lifeway diversity supported by the politics of morphological freedom. I suspect that some will take my own foregrounding of the commitment to diversity as an effort to hijack the politics of morphological freedom with the politics of “postmodern relativism” or some such nonsense. But the simple truth is that any understanding of “morphological freedom” that prioritizes intervention over diversity will threaten to underwrite eugenicist projects prone to imagine themselves emancipatory even when they are nonconsensual, and will police desired variation into a conformity that calls itself “optimal health,” stress management, or the most “efficient” possible allocation of scarce resources (whatever wealth disparities happen to prevail at the time). Whenever the term "enhancement," for example, is treated as neutral or objective, rather than a term to express an actually desired capacity or lifeway by some one among others, in respect to some end among others, it risks underwriting parochial perfectionisms stealthed as "objective optimality."

The force of the commitment to consent seems to me to imply that the politics of morphological freedom and prosthetic self-determination are of a piece with democratic left politics. I disapprove of the strong bias in favor of negative libertarian formulations of freedom at the heart of many current discussions of the idea of morphological freedom. Although neoliberal, neoconservative, and market libertarian formulations often appear content to describe any “contractual” or so-called “market” outcome as consensual by definition it is quite clear that in actuality such outcomes are regularly and conspicuously duressed by the threat or fact of physical force, by fraud and mis-information, and by basic unfairness. And so, whenever I speak of my own commitment to a culture of consent I mean to indicate very specifically a commitment to what I call substantiated rather than what I would reject as vacuous consent. A commitment to substantiated consent demands universal access to trustworthy information, to a basic guaranteed income, and to universal healthcare (actually, democratically-minded people of good will may well offer up competing bundles of entitlements to satisfy the commitment to substantiated consent, just as I have offered up a simplified version of my own here), all to ensure that socially legible performances of consent are always both as informed and nonduressed as may be. I suspect that some will take my own foregrounding of the commitment to substantiated consent as an effort to hijack the politics of morphological freedom with the politics of social democracy (or democratic socialism). But the simple truth is that any understanding of “morphological freedom” that demands anything less than democratically accountable and socially substantiated scenes of informed, nonduressed consent will function on the one hand to encourage the exposure of vulnerable people to risky and costly experimental procedures in the service of corporate profit and military competitiveness, while on the other hand it will function to underwrite the efforts of authoritarian moralists with unprecedented technological powers at their disposal who would impose their parochial perfectionisms on a planetary scale, quite satisfied to retroactively rationalize the righteousness of even mass slaughters and mass capitulations.

Part IV.
The Proportionate Precautionary Principle (PPP) as a Democratizing Framework for Developmental Deliberation

In the 20th century, some humans acquired through technological development the hitherto unprecedented capacity to destroy all human civilization, the whole human race and indeed all life on Earth. Symbolized in the detonation in 1945 of the first atom bomb, the subsequent decades of the last century witnessed an awesome proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, bioengineered pathogens, and other potentially apocalyptic technologies. There also emerged new dilemmas of global industrialization, characterized by unprecedented complexity, diffuse causes and deeply worrisome but ill-understood results. Among these were the rise of waste gases such as carbon dioxide and methane in the atmosphere, the possibly catastrophic rapid depletion of inexpensive fossil fuel resources, the widespread introduction of toxins into soil and groundwater, the overuse and diminished effectiveness of antibiotics and the planetary loss of biodiversity.

Although the standards of prudence have always had to reckon with the difficulties of estimating best outcomes in the face of future uncertainty, imperfect knowledge and unintended consequences, these standards have never yet managed to stretch enough to accommodate comfortably the new stakes of uncertainty in an era of potentially apocalyptic technologies. One effort to delineate such standards has come to be called the "Precautionary Principle."

Many technoprogressives champion what might be called a Proportionate Precautionary Principle (or, "PPP"), a version which advocates that:
[1] We should always be cautious in the face of possible harm;

[2] As assessments of risk and harm grow more severe according to the consensus of relevant science, the burden of their justification rightly falls ever more conspicuously onto those who propose either to impose them or to refrain from ameliorating them; and

[3] The processes through which these justifications and their assessments properly take place must be open, evidence-based, and involve all the actual stakeholders to the question at issue.

Technophiles who value speedier technological development in the expectation that it will deliver sooner for some goods of incomparable value, sometimes like to imply that all advocates of Precaution are indifferent to the risks that sometimes arise from refraining to act, or assess actual risks unnecessarily stringently, or exhibit a kind of blanket hostility to the attainments of medical-industrial technocultures (on which, of course, the Precautious depend themselves for their own standards of living).

While all of this is certainly true of some bioconservative advocates of Precaution –- and partisans on both sides can of course always find photogenic specimens to trot out in the support of their prejudices -– these accusations ignore the extent to which the Precautionary Principle was introduced precisely in response to damaging corporate-friendly government or self-sponsored research that selectively framed and published its results, and in response to the deployment of impossibly high standards of certainty to create the false impression that widely held, well-founded suspicions and concerns were in fact too controversial to provide a justification for regulation.

Such critics of Precaution also tend to ignore that many of the most influential formulations of the Precautionary Principle (which has as yet no definitive or canonical expression) confine their attention to cases of (1) likely nonreversible harm to the health of individuals or (2) to environmental harms that are likely to impose remediation costs higher than the benefits they generate or finally (3) to existential or extinction-level threats.

In proportionate formulations of precaution the stringency of the justificatory burden on actors is weighted in proportion to the sweep, scope, character, and intensity of the developmental consequences anticipated by stakeholders to that development and warranted by shared ethical and evidenciary standards.

As it happens, few formulations of the Principle are in fact oblivious to the ineradicable dimension of risk that inheres in all human conduct, including decisions to "refrain" from action. (It is crucial to remember that the status-quo rarely arises indifferently out of inaction but must itself be actively reproduced by those who have or imagine themselves to have a stake in its maintenance.) And while I will grant that it has not yet often been mobilized in arguments of this kind, the Precautionary Principle would seem to me to impel the development and deployment of emerging technologies and techniques to more effectively address global harms, malnutrition and ill-health, certain existential risks that have not hitherto been susceptible of effective response (for example, a defense against asteroid impacts, or a global warning system to inform vulnerable populations of tsunamis and the like, the tracking of weapons proliferation or global pandemics).

For its technoprogressive adherents, PPP is a democratizing deliberative framework for sustainable development, at once impelling a fairer distribution of the costs, risks, and benefits of technological development onto all of its stakeholders, while likewise enlisting the wider collaboration of these stakeholders in the actual process of research and the assessment of its results.

Regulation Between Relinquishment and Resignation (RRR)

In our own era, technological development poses a host of unprecedented quandaries for which anxious contemporary debates about genetic medicine, ubiquitous surveillance and widespread automation are faint premonitions. Confronted with the horrifying reality or prospect of new technological threats the first impulse of the North Atlantic democracies is almost certain to involve misguided compensatory expansions of state surveillance and control.

Bill Joy, among others, points out that probably-immanent technologies could exploit capacities for self-recursion (for example, software that could program ever more sophisticated versions of itself without direct human intervention or understanding) and self-replication (for example, biotechnologies or molecular nanotechnologies that could reproduce versions of themselves that spread exponentially) that will make them at once incredibly powerful and difficult to control.

Joy is so horrified at the destructive potential of these technologies that he notoriously proposes to ban their development altogether. The typical technophiliac rejoinder to Joy's proposal of a principled relinquishment in the face of unprecendented risk is that it is unenforceable, and would simply shift the development and use of these technologies to less scrupulous people and less regulated conditions. This would, of course, exacerbate the very risks relinquishment would be enacted to reduce.

Most technoprogressives concede the force this rejoinder, but are leery of facile misreadings of its implications. The fact that laws prohibiting murder don't eliminate the practice certainly doesn't imply we should strike them off the books. If Joy's technological relinquishment were in fact the best or only hope for humanity's survival, then we would of course be obliged to pursue it whatever the challenges.

But surely the stronger reason to question relinquishment is simply that it would deny us the extraordinary benefits of emerging technologies -— spectacularly safe, strong, cheap nanoscale-engineered materials and manufactured goods; abundant bioengineered foodstuffs; new renewable energy technologies; and incomparably effective medical interventions.

Corporate futurists and neoliberal technocrats often seem altogether too eager to claim that technological regulation is laways and absolutely unenforceable, or that developmental outcomes they desire happen to be "inevitable." But of course the shape that development will take -— its pace, distribution, applications -— is anything but inevitable. And all technological development is obviously and absolutely susceptible to regulation, for good or ill, by legitimate laws backed by force, as well as moral norms, market signals, and structural limits.

Market libertarian technophiles often like to suggest that any effort to regulate technological development at all is essentially the same as bioconservative efforts to ban it altogether. Many declare their faith that scientific research and investment on its own is best able to defend against the threats that science itself unleashes. This is a faith many technoprogressives largely share with them, but only to the extent that we recognize how much of what makes science "robust" is produced and maintained in the context of well-supported research traditions, stable institutions, steady funding and rigorous oversight, most of which looks quite like the "regulation" that libertarians otherwise abhor. For me (and this is a topic on which technoprogressives have many differing views), consensus scientific culture itself is an expression, accomplishment, and implementation of the democratic idea, and certainly not any kind of "spontaneous order."

Neoliberal, neoconservative, and market fundamentalist ideologues often advocate a kind of "market" resignation that seems to me exactly as disastrous in its consequences as any bioconservative's recommendation of relinquishment. In fact, the consequence of both policies seems precisely the same -— to abandon technological development to the least scrupulous, least deliberative, least accountable forces on offer. In saying this, the point is not to demonize commerce, of course, but simply to recognize that good governance encourages good and discourages antisocial business practices, while a climate of fair trade and general prosperity is likewise the best buttress to good democratic governance.

Part V.
The Politics Are Prior to the Toypile

Despair is as destructive to our democratic hopes as is the arrogance or nostalgia of elites. Neither the hype-notized dreams of our technophiles nor the disasterbatory nightmares of our technophobes tell us where we should build the next bit of road together (although both occasionally helpfully let us know when we've gotten off track altogether).

I believe that much of what people really mean when they either praise or excoriate something they call, in some general way, "technology" is to speak instead about the political values and concrete practices that drive technodevelopmental social struggle from moment to moment on the ground.

The very same corporate-militarism in America that has devastated independent media, co-opted our elections, debauched our representatives, fueled the drumbeat of deregulation without end that presided over the vast looting of our supportive infrastructure, and dismantled our civil liberties is of course the very same corporate-militarism that would enclose the creative and now, too, the genetic commons, that bolsters primitive extractive petrochemical industries while constraining the emergence and implementation of networked renewable alternatives, fights a puritanical war on re-creational drugs by means of corporate-approved drugs of docility and distraction, arms the diabolical machineries that drench the world in blood and violence.

In the hands of elites and in the service of elite agendas technologies too often exacerbate inequity and exploitation. While in more democratic societies, technologies have the best hope of serving emancipatory ends instead: Regulated by legitimate democratic authorities to ensure they are as safe as may be. And regulated as well to best ensure that their costs, risks, and benefits are shared by all of their stakeholders. And all of this in the context of a culture of informed nonduressed consent -- that is, with open access to consensus scientific knowledge and in the absence of the duress of physical force, financial ruin, or conspicuous humiliation.

Current democratic formations have demonstrated their extreme vulnerability to the depredations of corporate-militarism, as have the world's most vulnerable people by the millions. We must take up emerging peer-to-peer digital networked media and social software to reclaim and reshape our democracies just as we must take up emerging renewable technologies to lighten the human bootprint on our earth even as we welcome ever more human minds and lives into the community of full democratic citizenship. Both of these efforts are indispensable to any realizable globalization of the promise of democracy as well as any serious effort to turn the global anti-democratic corporate-military tide.

Further, I believe we must facilitate the fuller flowering of diversity and freedom made possible when the resources of culture expand to encompass the informed, nonduressed, consensual genetic, prosthetic, and cognitive modification of human lifeways in the image of our diverse values.

Without democratic accountability, answerability, responsibility corporate-military technodevelopment will leave the earth a charred cinder, but so too without the emerging tools of peer-to-peer digital networks, sustainable energy technologies, better-than-well medicine (and, one hopes, soon enough, replicative nanoscale manufacturing), the social formations of democratic governance progressives and technoprogressives advocate will little likely command the material and rhetorical resources to fight the vast established interests that drive corporate-militarism today, nor to mobilize humanity imaginatively today and tomorrow to establish a global democratic, sustainable order and culture of universal informed, nonduressed consent in an open future.

What is wanted instead in this unprecedented historical moment of technoconstituted quandary and confusion are new progressive, sustainable, democratizing technocriticisms. What is wanted are new critical technocentric discourses and practices attentive to the complex and competing costs, risks, benefits, promises, pleasures, and dangers of disruptive and intimate technological developments and prosthetic practices.

People Powered Politics and the Emerging Technoprogressive Mainstream

Over the last thirty years an alliance of established religious and socially conservative powers as well as moneyed elites in the United States confronted the likely proximate eclipse of their power in the face of a few inter-related disruptive developments: the postwar rise of (disproportionately white, middle-class) popular democracy facilitated by the New Deal and the GI Bill, technoscientific destabilization on many fronts (waves of media reinvention from print to photocopy to broadcast to p2p, the pill and assistive reproductive technolgies [ARTs], global transportation networks, generations of both proscribed and mandated neuroceuticals, proliferating WMDS, and so on), and ramifying secularizations with their attendant compensatory fundamentalisms. The elite leaders of the movement conservatives built an institutional universe of alternative "ideas"/PR, "thinktanks," media and communications infrastructure, fundraising tools, and a strategy of selective targeted manipulation of certain institutional weaknesses in the constituted form of American democracy (like the electoral college, an exclusive two-party system, a vulnerability to expansive executive wartime powers, money-as-speech, the fall of the Fairness Doctrine, etc.) to maintain and consolidate their powers, privileges, and prejudices in the face of these vast ongoing contrary social, cultural, and technoscientific tides.

We are living as I write this, of course, in the moment of the great contradiction and culmination of this movement, the moment when this machinery achieves its greatest hegemony as well as its abject failure (since the machine reflects only the desire to hold power, not to legitimately govern or otherwise respond to the world, this failure at the moment of its greatest success is scarcely suprising).

The lesson of the cynical "successes" of this conservative movement for technoprogressive folks are the same as the lessons of the progressive era, the early years of the labor movement, and of many comparable movements as well; namely, that in relatively open democratic societies organization, education, and direct action can shape institutions and popular opinion in time to address perceived needs, often with a sweep and scope and in timescales that may seem breathtakingly impossible to the players themselves in the midst of history's storm-churn itself.

One reason I think Americans can change quickly and radically enough to redirect worrisome technoscientific developments (insanely destructive devices, panoptic surveillance, industry-induced climate change and species extinctions, intrusive homogenizing "therapeutic" medical regimes, and so on) to democratic and emancipatory ends instead is because I believe many of the problems that demand the strongest redress to accomplish this emancipatory rearticulation of technoscientific development are at root problems of basic accountability and transparency for public authorities (government, corporate, academic), problems of conscpicuous unfairness (neglected but easily treatable illnesss around the world, unfair global trade practices, austerity mandates for majorities without comparable correlated progressive taxation or property taxes for rich minorities), problems of media consolidation, problems of the corporate-military co-optation of civic life, problems of threatened democratic and deliberative processes, problems of defending and funding universal entitlements, problems of securing universal education to satisfy the demands of democracy for a literate, numerate, critical, and civic-minded citizenry, problems of deeply conservative intellectual property regimes, and so on.

What technophiles sometimes seem to mistake as the problem of a certain basic cultural hostility or skepticism to "technology" in general is, I think, actually often more accurately described as a sensible skepticism and resistance to technodevelopment as it is currently defined by relentless selective deregulation in the interests of corporate-military elites together with selective regulation to reflect the prejudices of religious and socially conservative minorities.

Again, the politics are prior to the technological toypile on offer. I am often frustrated by what appears to be an abiding indifference and naivete about political matters evidence by many so-called "technophiles." This is an indifference that at its most extreme effloresces as the actively anti-political hostility at the core of technocratic attitudes and, especially, in the libertarian viewpoints espoused by so many technophiles who do take politics seriously enough to think about them in any kind of sustained way. But apart from the fact that this is an insight that inspires frustrations in me, it is also true that the priority of the politics over the toypile to the actual shape of techscientific development in history is cause for real hope.

The rise of people-powered politics associated with the internet, the blogosphere, emerging peer-to-peer models of organization, criticism, content provision, security in depth, small donor aggregation, all of this is creating a vast, passionate, incomparably transformative democratic movement in response to the catastrophic conservative movement I have been talking about here so far.

Much of what technoprogressives demand from technodevelopment will be accomplished through the achievement of democratic reform: election reforms, energy reforms, healthcare reforms, welfare reforms, defense reforms, anti-corporatist reforms, anti-corruption reform, civil liberties reforms, progressive tax reforms, intellectual property reforms, media reforms, education reforms and the like. And what matters about this is that energetic movements to demand and direct these reforms are already underway. They constitute what are unquestionably the most exciting political movements abroad in the land today.

As I have often pointed out before, I am not surprised in the least to discover that the people-powered reality-based movement of anti-corporatism and democratization understands its debt to technological developments like digital networked media and also embraces technoprogressive positions on peer-to-peer, renewable energy technology r & d, copyfight and creative commons, consensus science oversight and education, assistive reproductive technologies, stem-cell research, and medical research more generally. The new democratic majority is an emerging technoprogressive mainstream.

Not to put too fine a point on it, this is one of the reasons why I consider it absurd in the extreme to accept neologistic labels with weird histories and confusing entailments like "dynamist," "upwinger," "transhumanist," and the like to describe my work and my hopes. I have strong reasons to believe that the people who want to use technology to deepen democracy and democracy to ensure technology benefits us all are shaping up to be the people we call, in the United States of America at any rate, well, simply Progressive Democrats.

Finally, it bears mentioning that the chief historical consequence of movement conservatism is likely in the end to be that in their efforts to preserve elite privileges and prejudices at any cost the movement conservatives will have managed to devastate much of the American material, civic, and financial infrastructure domestically and military resources abroad. American exceptionalism and popular complacency has been rendered workable largely by the bubble of ignorance and apparent invulnerability to consequence long secured by its hideous military might and the corporatist culture of dumb distraction.

But costs are real, consequences are real, the world is real, and the bubbles are bursting. Americans will embrace the changes they must in part because greedy, short-sighted, panic-stricken conservatives have debauched the means Americans too long had on hand to evade their real responsibilities to the world.

The problems of technoscientific development are conspicuously global problems: WMD and arms trading, emerging pandemics, climate change, biodiversity issues, human rights abuses, neglected diseases, viciously unfair trade and labor practices, human trafficking, carrying capacity and longevity dividends and such. It is, in my view, frankly all to the good that the monopolar superpower that is a chief obstacle to the emergence of the protocols and intitutions of global democratic governance necessary to cope with these global problems step aside before it is too late, however gracefully or disgracefully it manages to do so.

Technology Needs Democracy, Democracy Needs Technology

Over the years of my lifetime, conservative ideologues have seemed to frame their usual corporatist, militarist, deregulatory schemes more and more in apparently revolutionary terms. They seem to hyperventilate ever more conspicuously and insistently about their customary money-grabs and power-grabs in the faux-revolutionary cadences of “freedom on the march” and with faux-revolutionary visions of “free markets” surging, swarming, crystallizing, and well-nigh ejaculating the whole world over. And over these same years of my lifetime, the democratic left—already demoralized, perhaps, by the failures of long-privileged revolutionary vocabularies—seemed almost to sleepwalk into the rather uninspiring position of defending the fragile institutional attainments of imperfectly representative, imperfectly functional welfare states in apparently conservative terms. They have struggled reasonably but too-often ineffectually, spellbound with worry over the real harms to real people that have accompanied the long but apparently irresistable dismantlement of the social democratic status quo, such as it was.

This was and somewhat remains a problem for the radical democratic left. On the one hand, there appears to be an ongoing failure to take seriously the vast resources and breathtaking organizational discipline that can be mobilized by the real desperation of religious and market fundamentalist elites panic-stricken by global secularization and its threats to the traditional, parochial, and “natural” vocabularies that have legitimized hitherto their otherwise unearned privileges and authority. And on the other hand, there has simply been a failure of nerve and, worse, imagination in the fraught efforts to formulate an appealing post-marxist revolutionary democratic vocabulary that could inspire people to struggle for long-term general emancipation rather than short-term personal gain.

For me, of course, such a new revolutionary vocabulary would need to be a palpably technoprogressive one. It would consist of the faith and demand that global technological development be beholden to the interests of all its stakeholders as they themselves express these interests, that existing technological powers be deployed to redress injustice, ameliorate suffering, diminish danger, remediate the damage of prior and ongoing technological development (especially the legacies of unsustainable extractive and petrochemical industrialization), and finally that new technologies be developed to incomparably emancipate, empower, and democratize the world.

Conservatism cannot appropriate a technoprogressive vision, since any conception of progress that insists on both its technical and social dimensions will indisputably threaten established powers. But there is no question that conservatives will take up technodevelopmental politics for their own ends. Indeed, conservative military-industrial technophiles, neoliberal technocrats, and global corporate futurists already largely define the terms in which technodevelopmental politics are playing out in the contemporary world. Conservative technodevelopmental politics in its corporate-conservative mode will continue to insist that “progress” is a matter of the socially-indifferent accumulation of useful inventions to be enjoyed first and most by the elites with whom particular conservatives identify. And in its bioconservative modes conservative technodevelopmental politics will continue to indulge in daydreams of unenforceable bans on scientific research and of blanket disinventions of late modernity (trying all the while not to think too much about the genocidal die-offs entailed in such pastoral fantasies) on the part of deep ecologists and anti-choice activists.

Not to put too fine a point on it, I believe that without democracy technology will likely destroy the living world, and that without technology democracy will likely wither into irrevelance and so destroy the human world. But I believe no less that a radical democratic politics of global technological development will likely emancipate humanity at last. Radical democracy needs to take up its revolutionary stance again, to gain and remake the world for us all before the world is utterly lost to us all.

Beyond technophilia and technophobia? There are whole worlds of new responses, new responsivenesses, and new responsibilities.

Let’s find out what we are capable of.

Sunday, June 26, 2005

More Random Wilde

It is only an auctioneer who can equally and impartially admire all schools of art.

Left to Do

I’ve been teaching a six week intensive seminar on argumentative writing, broadly organized around the theme of technoethics, here at Berkeley all this month.

And just like last year about this time, my blogging has slowed to a trickle in consequence of the workload, and even more just the exhausting mental preoccupations of teaching and grading papers. And always in the background, sometimes in the foreground, are the demands of revising the dissertation for my Committee.

But so much has been happening the last few weeks I wanted at least to register my sense of things in the simplest terms. Something different is in the air, something new is afoot. There’s a prestorm ozone reek in the atmosphere these days, something crackling scarily like static….

First things first.

The Bush Administration lied America into catastrophic war and lied us into catastrophic debt. In both cases, the Administration told its lies so that its friends could steal.

I have of course long maintained this view, and have often said as much here and elsewhere.

The Bush conservatives and their eager opportunistic supporters among the social, religious, and market fundamentalists are directly responsible for the avoidable deaths of countless soldiers and civilians on foreign fields, and for the avoidable deaths by hunger, treatable illness, and exacerbated violence of countless others in cities and settlements and refugee camps at home and abroad.

Some things can be said quite simply: Under Bush, moneyed and moralistic elites have lied so that they could steal. And they don’t much care about the people who have died as a result of their dishonesty and their greed.

Almost everybody I know has known all of this for years. And every single relatively reasonable person who pretends now that they didn’t hear perfectly sensible voices saying these things all along, offering up reasons and evidence to support their case, is also lying. They are lying either because they sought to benefit from the crimes of the Adminstration themselves, even if only tangentially, or because they are now ashamed of their own cowardice or stupidity and are just too stubborn to admit their complicity in the shabby crimes of this debased era.

Now, for the first time in all this time, suddenly Americans in general seem receptive to the truth. Death tolls, global distrust, and vast economic insecurity are breaking through the Republican crust of convention.

More and more people are chiseling past the President’s phony populism to stand face to face with the liar and the incompetent behind the mask. Fewer and fewer people are willing to pretend that Rovian dirty tricks represent some kind of genius rather than simply a complete ruthlessness without a moral compass to restrain it. The Administration is revealed as a surreal circle of brown-shirted Muscle Marys, snake-handling feudal theocrats, and trigger-happy money-grubbing kooks who still take Ayn Rand seriously.

There is no question in my mind that a few courageous vestiges of independent journalism, the liberal blogosphere, and Air America Radio are responsible for this painfully slow turn to face facts at last.

Next, we must name names and take prisoners. This time, decent democracy-loving Americans must demand accountability from the criminals who have exploited our trust and our society, even if we would all prefer to forget this ugly episode and just get back to our lives.

The war-criminals and white-collar criminals who have joined hands in the Bush Administration and who have taken us down this stupid pointless blood-soaked path to the brink are sure to fight like mad to retain their stranglehold on civic discourse and civic institutions. Never forget they are capable of anything, and never forget what they have done already.

The social and religious conservatives recognize that despite their assumption of power at literally every level of governance they are a minority swimming against the democratizing secularizing globalizing prostheticizing tides of technoprogressive civilization. They rightly fear that to lose now is to lose irrevocably, because victory for them is not peaceful coexistence but unquestioned authority; and as the world grows more plural, plastic, and prosthetic their pat certainties and pet privileges grow more precarious by the moment.

The moneyed and militarist conservatives recognize that the developmental forces unleashed by the century-long scientific-technological partnership with big business (aka: the Military-Industrial Complex) have culminated in a globalizing world they are too parochial to control. And now these forces have begun to incubate as well rival peer-to-peer projects of research, manufacture, and service-provision that look likely to undermine the exhausting, distracting authoritarian work ethic and spread the risks, costs, and benefits of global technological development in democratizing directions.

I am terrified and exhilarated when I contemplate the era in which we find ourselves now.

I cannot imagine what the conservatives will do now in their growing desperation. And just so, I cannot imagine what democracy and development can accomplish if religious fundamentalists and market fundamentalists (who constitute minorities after all of the religious and the enterprising) are nudged back to the margins of the conversation of humankinds.

After we survive whatever comes next, we must make it impossible to profit from war, else war will never truly be a last resort. We must make our government more representative through campaign finance reform and election reform, else elites will use government as a tool for unprecedented exploitation. We must eliminate the conflicts of interest that undermine the regulation of commerce, development, and media, else corruption will inevitably undermine democracy. We must dismantle our imperial archipelago of military bases, and we must end the culture of state secrets, secret budgets, and exceptionalism that supports it, else we will invite certain destruction from the wider world we have dominated, and likely so destroy the world. We must reinvent industrial civilization and make it sustainable, else we will invite unprecedented devastation. And we must come to terms with the unprecedented power of emerging medical and manufacturing technologies, either to emancipate the world or unleash total annihilation, else we will remain vulnerable to destructive conservative backlashes that exploit our reasonable fears of radical change.

There is so much left to do. And once I finish grading these papers, there is so much left to talk about.

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Monday, June 20, 2005

Dispatches From Libertopia: Joy-1

Technoprogressive John K. Fitzpatrick penned this nice bit of satirical snark ribbing the market libertopian technophiles who seem to gather so gawkily and conspicuously wherever and whenever radical technological developments are being discussed. It tickled me, so I thought I'd share.

TechCentralStation is reporting a small planetoid consisting entirely of oil has been discovered in the outer asteroid belt.

The planetoid, dubbed Joy-1, is suspected of being the result of market forces of a now-extinct Jovian civilization. "We suspect that the demand for oil on Jupiter grew so large, and produced so much surplus oil, that they had to dispose of the excess off-planet. Then statists gained power and the Jovians went extinct. Their loss is our gain!" said Astronomical Search Society chief Nick Schulz. "This discovery should keep the market economy in the black for another hundred years, and vindicates the age-old wisdom I have been promulgating for the last several months. We hope it is the first of many extinct civilizations, and as such, it marks the end of globalization, and the start of solarization!"

A mission to the planetoid, led by Dr. Roy Spencer, and to include the entire senior faculty of the Chicago School of Economics, is planned at the earliest possible opportunity.

For more Trouble in Libertopia, here is an early essaylet that sets the scene. For more on TechCentralStoopid, there is background here.

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Today's Random Wilde

Each class preaches the importance of those virtures it need not exercise. The rich harp on the value of thrift, the idle grow eloquent over the dignity of labor.

Monday, June 13, 2005

Democratic Science?

A friendly critic just posted to complain about a glib comment I am often overheard to make; namely, that scientific practice is in an important sense "democratic."

"Science is not a democracy," he writes, "but a dictatorship."

I simply could not disagree more.

I think that what some of the rather more puritanical champions of scientific culture think I mean when I say science is democratic is something on the order of: "People make the world what it is simply by agreeing to say so."

That is, they simply offer up a caricature of idealism or relativism from a perspective that I would then go on to caricature as naive realism. You can readily imagine the joyless ritual that tends to eventuate from the mutual incomprehension of this failed point of departure.

What I actually mean when I say "science is democratic" is simply that it involves practices of collaboration among peers according to shared but contentious standards in the service of shared but contentious ends.

Science cannot be a dictatorship, I say, because neither the world it describes, nor any particular scientist exercises anything like absolute authority over the community of scientific practice.

The world has no preferences in the matter of how humans describe it. The descriptions that will be the best ones on offer from moment to moment will crucially depend on the network of warranted beliefs into which new candidates for belief are offered up for testing and consideration -- including beliefs about what are good powers to have more than others.

That the world is susceptible to description as such underdetermines the descriptions that will satisfy the criteria of warranted assertibility. And by these criteria I mean the usual suspects: falsifiability, testability, adequacy, coherence, elegance, etc.

And since every single one of the criteria on the basis of which we have been rightly satisfied that beliefs are warranted in the past has selected at least some beliefs that were subsequently replaced with better beliefs later, we have to assume that we will never know that a belief is more than the best on offer but also final in some sense.

And so: science is an endless collaborative effort to describe the world in ever more instrumentally powerful ways in the service of shared values.

I am a champion of scientific culture as a collective project to discover uniquely empowering descriptions of the world and thereby satisfy human needs. There are always indefinitely many scientists who can re-stage the experiments on the basis of which descriptions are offered up as candidates for warranted assertibility, and incomparably many more people are empowered to weigh these descriptions against other candidates on offer to shape the emerging consensus. I can think of no higher compliment than to point out how wonderfully democratic all this is.

Science, it seems to me, needs no dictators and needs no priests.

Sunday, June 12, 2005

The Random Wilde

All thought is immoral. Its very essence is destruction. If you think of anything, you kill it. Nothing survives being thought of.

Saturday, June 11, 2005

GIGOO, AI, Potayto, Potahto

"Tomayto Tomahto," is what, in effect, one e-pistolary correspondent had to say about my claim in yesterday's "GIGOO" post that, "I'm personally incomparably more scared of GIGOO (unprecedentedly powerful, complex, distributed, possibly self-recursive, probably globally networked, buggy software) than 'Unfriendly AI.'"

"It doesn't matter how you call it," he went on to say, but "rapidly evolving and speciating/radiating postbiology is a potentially terminal threat at any levels[.]"

Of course, I get his point. But "how you call it" seems to me to matter a great deal, indeed.

The figures through which we frame what he calls here the quandaries of "postbiology" will mobilize radically different kinds of attentions, assumptions, interventions. Consider the choice of the term "postbiology" itself here, a word already freighted with entailments that probably cost one sympathy without compensatory benefits of clarity or force to justify them. Why not simply "nonbiology," for example?

My own point is that it pays to frame developmental threats in a way that mobilizes more efficacious intervention. The figures of "intelligence" and especially "superintelligence" seem to me more trouble than they're worth if what is wanted are relevant safety standards, regulatory and funding guidelines, and institutional safeguards for self-replicating, self-modifying, distributed software applications too complex for humans to understand which nonetheless intervene in human environments in potentially devastating ways.

Why intelligences, personages, monsters, angels, succubi? The last thing we need, if you ask me, are figurations that launch people into fight or flight in the face of an imaginary potential predator, or lust at an especially appealing imaginary sex partner, or remobilize Oedipal narratives from childhood and hence irrational desires for or aggressivity toward a parent-substitute where replicative software is concerned, of all things.

As an example of the kind of argument I am making here from a slightly different context: I would also argue that the figure of "Gaia" is usually much more trouble than it's worth as a way of framing the regulatory quandaries of threatening complex systemic interactions of global petrochemical industrialization and the terrestrial environment, since some of the more reasonable projects to ameliorate climate change will likely involve technological interventions that would look like "violations" of "Gaia" as well. Better, then, not to frame the threats in terms that mobilize intuitions about violations of bodily integrity in the first place -- whatever the allure of such a mobilization given the otherwise difficult task of overcoming the complacency provoked by the overwhelming complexity of these issues.

But, no, let's not call the whole thing off.

Friday, June 10, 2005


As more and more computers continue to grow more and more powerful, more and more people worry more and more about the specter of hostile or simply indifferent nonbiological superhuman intelligences. This makes me think that far too much of the roboethical discourse around ethical AI has been informed by monster movies.

Look: Computers do not have to "awaken" to do their mischief. Unfathomably powerful computers need not evolve to form demonic "intentions" to manage to destroy the world any number of awful but readily conceivable ways.

The emphasis of many roboethicians on "hostility" and "intelligence" -- neither of which I personally imagine likely to be spit up by a hyperbolic MIPS curve or any near to middle-term future chapter in Moore's extraordinary ongoing saga -- looks to me like a deranging distraction more than anything else.

I'm personally incomparably more scared of GIGOO (unprecedentedly powerful, complex, distributed, possibly self-recursive, probably globally networked, buggy software) than "Unfriendly AI."

And, no, I do not deny the possibility "in principle" of an engineered intelligence embodied in a nonbiological substrate. I don't think intelligence is some kind of ghost in the machine.

I just think that when computer enthusiasts talk about the looming arrival of artificial intelligence they (a) usually seem to overestimate the adequacy of their practical knowledge, (b) usually seem to overestimate the smooth function of technologies on the ground, and (c) usually seem to mean by "intelligence" rather less than what most people mean when they speak of human intelligence. This is all very familiar because of course these limitations have always bedeviled the discourse of artificial intelligence, especially when it takes to prognosticating.

But none of this should make anybody feel certain, a priori, that the strong program of artificial intelligence will never succeed... Indeed, as a good materialist I frankly see no reason at all why it shouldn't succeed eventually -- so long as civilization doesn't manage to destroy itself through commonplace short-sighted greed and superstition.

But, frankly, it seems to me technoprogressives have much more pressing things to worry about right about now than hostile nonbiological superhuman intelligences. After technoprogressives manage to grapple with unprecedentedly cheap and powerful WMD, address damaging climate change exacerbated by expanding petrochemical industrialization, deal with global pandemics incubated by technologically facilitated migration, slow pernicious wealth concentration via increasing automation, re-articulate intuitions about "consent" to accommodate cognitive modification via existing and emerging neuroceuticals, address prosthetic practices of medical enhancement and longevity within the frames of rights culture and the promotion of general welfare, and sort out the threats and promises of digital networked media and communications technologies to the democratic experiment, then, and only then, will it make much sense to me to expend technoprogressive energies in worries about making prospective HALs behave like pals.

GIGOO quandaries will have to be addressed through regulation, oversight, sequestration, and such. The hostile and malign intelligences with which we will no doubt have to deal in fact soon enough (and in a real sense already are) belong to the criminal humans who will surely code or deploy these GIGOO nuisances. I can't imagine that any of these roboethical efforts will be helped along particularly if they are articulated through the prism of hype-notised handwaving enthusuasm or disasterbatory panic about superhuman computers or robot armies or other artificial intelligences.

Selves Are Fictional But Not Illusory

"People afflicted with multiple personalities reveal that the idea of the self is a fiction," writes Matthew Syed in the Times. It is a claim I have often seen before.

Syed goes on:

Since we first learnt to use language we have regarded the first-person pronoun as referring to something that existed in childhood, exists today, will continue to exist in the future and -- for those of a religious persuasion -- will survive bodily death. We fondly think of this self as the subject of our experiences, the instigator of our actions and the custodian of our morality. We are lulled into this idea by the seeming unity of our consciousness: our various thoughts and perceptions all knitted into a seamless whole.

This cherished conception is, however, a cruel fiction. It has taken extreme cases, such as [multiple personalities], to ram the truth home....

While it is fair to say that Freud was plenty shocking when he claimed all this already a century ago, it is difficult to see why intellectuals would claim this sort of thing remains anything like shocking today. Frankly, even the ethicians of antiquity had a more sophisticated version of the self than the monolithic and perfectly self-controlled fantasy of self that is presumably being undermined here -- as witness their innumerable discussions of "the passions."

Syed continues:

A more plausible theory is that which is emerging from both biology and artificial intelligence. As Daniel Dennett, the philosopher, puts it: "Complex systems can in fact function in what seems to be a thoroughly 'purposeful and integrated' way simply by having lots of subsystems doing their own thing without any central supervision." The self, then, is not what it seems to be. There is no soul, no spirit, no supervisor. There is just a brain, a dull grey collection of neurons and neural pathways -- going about its business. The illusion of self is merely a by-product of the brain's organisational sophistication.

Now, certainly we all should sensibly swallow the pill that we are not in fact omnipotent seamlessly continuous and perfectly willful "masters of our own houses" in the Freudian phrasing. But this hardly justifies any equally absurdly reductionist compensatory fantasies that would return us to a world red in tooth and claw.

It seems to me to be perfectly easy to be an antiessentialist about the self, that is to say to deny the self a soul, a spirit, or an omnipotent supervisor (except for certain metaphorical connotations these terms harmlessly sometimes take on for some perfectly reasonable people), but then to refuse the "conclusion" of some that the self without such paraphernalia is therefore somehow an "illusion."

So, the self is a fiction? Fine with me. A useful fiction it remains, nevertheless.

I have long held the view (also Dennettian), that the self is a center of narrative gravity. I feel the tug of the Nietzschean view of the self as a process of self-overcoming (or what Foucault called ethics as care of the self).

Richard Rorty wrote an essay back in 1987 called "Non-reductive Physicalism" that takes up Dennett's views (as they were back then) and concludes in a rather Humean fashion that good pragmatic materialists need not jettison the terms of folk-psychology on which so many of our moral intuitions depend -- for example, the idea of selves as subjects not objects, as agentic bearers of dignity and rights, as formers of intelligible texts -- but simply translate them into moral terms when we're trying to do and to be good and scientific terms when we're trying to predict and control our environments. This still seems good enough for me.

On an unrelated note, I can't help but imagine how Dennett's figural conguration of "[c]omplex systems [that] can in fact function in what seems to be a thoroughly 'purposeful and integrated' way simply by having lots of subsystems doing their own thing without any central supervision" will inevitably feel incontrovertibly plausible and ferociously appealing to the broadly market-libertarian, "evolutionary psychology"-leaning, cybernetic totalist, technophilic temperaments that so often drift into the, "Brights," Butterflies and Wheels, transhumanish milieux.

The reason is that Dennett is offering up here the usual recourse to their favorite explanatory figure, the complacent self-congratulatory dream of "spontaneous order."

"Accepting the death of 'self' is both strange and traumatic," writes Syed, "bringing with it a profound a sense of bereavement. Except that there is nothing there to bereave."

The substantial "something" falsely promised by a priestly metaphysics, is reduced just as falsely into a "nothing" by a priestly science.

But of course one should bereave the loss of self, whether from the trauma of unnarrativisable violation, the eruption of organic pathology, the denial of rights, or the like.

The "stuff" of self isn't an essential metaphysical center angelic ensouled beings reverberate to in the presence of comparbly angelic beings. It is narrative, performative, phenomenological in character. The self is an ongoing process of self-creation: the cognitive and bodily processes Dennett is talking about, in the context of social and cultural and political and prosthetic personal practices.

Just because you can't find a supernatural thing to genuflect to doesn't mean the self isn't still the only game in town.