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

Sunday, July 31, 2005

Live Long and Prosper: A Program of Technoprogressive Social Democracy

For technoprogressives, there is no question that even radical and disruptive technological developments can be empowering and emancipatory when they are funded and regulated by legitimate democratic authorities and accountable processes to ensure that their costs, risks, and benefits are all fairly distributed among all the actual stakeholders to these developments. But it is no less true for technoprogressives that such developments threaten catastrophes to individual health, safety, and to the environment as a whole, as well as to exacerbate injustice and facilitate exploitation whenever they do not reflect these democratic values and processes.

The most legitimate concern of many bioconservatives (and of those who tend to sympathize with their arguments for now) 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.

To the extent that bioconservatives value "natural" -- that is to say nothing but customary -- distributions of power and authority over values like consent, equality, health, and an end to needless meaningless suffering, they find themselves on considerably shakier ground than this. And so, it seems to me that technoprogressives should address such legitimate and urgent concerns about technoconstituted social injustice as our own focus. This would force the biconservatives to distinguish themselves from us by foregrounding instead the far less appealing social conservatism, elitism, and embarrassing anti-democratic, anti-scientific biases that constitute the actual core of their temperament and political stand.

Unfortunately, most committed technocentric critics and advocates are either technophobes who will already incline to the bioconservative perspective or technophiles who are often unpardonably complacent about issues of social justice. Far too often privileged techno-utopians and enthusiasts will trivialize questions of social justice altogether as if they were merely the complaints of "envious" people that "the rich" will get all the good toys first, rather than the expression of the truism that technological inequality tends to correspond to unacceptable political inequality. Too often technophiliac (non-)responses to social concerns veer dangerously close to twirling a bright shiny object in front of the eyes of the relatively less prosthetically-empowered as if to distract them from the conspicuous consequent threat of their relative political powerlessness. "Why, in techno-utopia" -- kissing cousin to libertopia, I'm afraid -- "even the poorest of the poor live like the princeliest of the princes in olden tymes," they froth. "Look'ee at this here big screen tee-vee! this air-conditioned shag-carpeted domicile! this candy-dish chock-full of viagra capsules!"

The proper technoprogressive response to concern about conspicuously unequal distributions of emerging technological capacities, then, is to recognize explicitly that this is primarily a worry about the developmental threat of pernicious antidemocratic distributions of power, and to foreground just how eminently sensible a worry this is based on overabundant historical experience.

Further, I propose the following initial, provisional programmatic redress of social injustice as an indispensable part of a properly technoprogressive advocacy of radical, disruptive technological developments (comparably technoprogressive alternative recommendations are, of course, welcome):

First: Technoprogressives demand a basic income guarantee as an indispensable complement to any general championing of disruptive technological development. This effectively eliminates poverty from social life and sustains 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, to participate in new collaborative forms of media oversight and policy deliberation, in addition to voting on policy-measures and representatives for public office.
Let me add two quick side notes here:

ONE. Don't forget that the media has always been subsidized. Even in relatively "minarchist" Founding-Era America the architects of the republic recognized the indispensability of media to working 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 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.

TWO. Also, remember that Marshall Brain has called for the provision of a basic income guarantee to ameliorate pernicious income consolidation facilitated by automation in the present day. This, then, is not some pie-in-the-sky speculation about a distant possibly-fanciful post-scarcity nano-topia, but a very progressive, forceful, conspicuously relevant contribution technoprogressive critics and advocates can focus on right now to make a difference today that will illuminate future promises and enlist enthusiasm about a better future.

Second: Technoprogressives demand universal basic health care provision as well as a stakeholder grant in enhancement medicine as an indispensable complement to any general championing of research, development, and the support of consensual practices 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) and enlists every citizen as a participant in a civilization-wide peer-to-peer experiment in better-than-well health-care provision and rejuvination medicine. This stakeholder grant in healthcare and enhancement would foreground the value of morphological freedom (for more on this term, look here and here) in a properly technoprogressive democratic civilization, empowering citizens to engage in proliferating projects of self-creation, as peers celebrating a prostheticized explosion of bodily and cognitive and lifeway diversity.

For democrats and technoprogressives social justice cannot tolerate unequal distributions of authority beyond a certain point (we are, I fear, well 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.

Part of the danger of framing worries about technodevelopmental injustice in terms of conflicts of "rich" against "poor" is that this so impoverishes the conceptual resources available to us as we would address these difficulties. What is wanted is a prosperity that renders this distinction altogether irrelevant.

There need be nothing in the least dangerous or pernicious, for example, about some especially lucky or talented or pretty people accumulating absurd fortunes so long as this doesn't encourage authoritarian concentrations of power in consequence and so long as those who lack such fortunes do not thereby lose their power to meaningfully consent to the terms in which they live their lives or lose their capacity to contribute as peers in the projects of democratic civilization.

The key is the strongest possible support of a civilization that values equality, diversity and the discretionary at once -- which will include as one of its least interesting entailments the existence of some people who are vastly rich, just as it would still surely entail the existence of some whose embrace of lifestyles of voluntary simplicity might seem superficially similar to the lives of some mildly impoverished people in the world today.

Be that as it may, there is also a case to be made for encouraging particularly enthusiastic, reckless, adventurous people, whether situated by wealth or by temperament, to take up new prosthetic and medical practices before the rest of us do, who can function thereby as a comparatively safely sequestered minoritized advance test-population working out conspicuous technological bugs before they manage to ruinously disseminate among majorities.

It may be true, I suppose (but I do not concede the necessity or even likelihood of this), that developmental regulation to facilitate these democratic ends might slow the pace of development with the consequence that some of the richest most powerful people today might wait longer to gain benefits they might otherwise enjoy sooner. But it is hard for me to understand why their frustration is inherently more relevant than that of the incomparably many more who would be no less frustrated in their stead, and who would certainly gain these benefits themselves more quickly in consequence of a democratization of developmental risks, costs, and benefits.

Friday, July 29, 2005

Today's Random Wilde

There is something tragic about the enormous number of young men there are in England at the present moment who start life with perfect profiles, and end by adopting some useful profession.

Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Is Science Democratic?

I.

Consensus science looks to me like a profoundly democratic and democratizing process.

The revolutions, substantiations and explications of properly scientific description and belief are distributed across the community of practicing scientists, and in principle across the whole community of scientifically literate people. And so, there is something deeply democratic for me at the very heart of what it is about science that distinguishes it from the authoritarian utterances of priestly elites who would otherwise solicit the belief of the faithful.

Scientific and democratic cultures arose and ramified together historically to reinvent human emancipation and transform the lived experience of human freedom. And the interminably disruptive impact of science on received customs and established authorities, no less than the unprecedented creative and remediative power it unceasingly unleashes, is an incomparable ally to those of us who would continue to struggle to democratize the world.

There is no question that an invocation of "science" has regularly underwritten terrible antidemocratic forces and projects. Socially pernicious pseudo-scientific movements like those that drove nineteenth-century "race-science" to justify imperialism, or scientistic movements like those that drive contemporary reductionist misapplications of genetic science to rationalize misogyny, racism, heterosexism, or class-warfare are among the obvious examples.

But scientific sense has prevailed and I think will continue to prevail against these movements mobilized in its name because of the democratizing breadth of its substantiating and falsifying collaborators. Consensus science prevails because good scientific practice emerged together with and responds still to the ongoing pressures from the diverse and proliferating stakeholders of democratizing societies who constitute those collaborators in the widest sense.

The testability that articulates the scientifically sensible and the diversity that articulates democratic sensitivity deeply and interminably articulate one another, they respond to one another, and they are now responsible for one another.

And so, for me, it is not just right to say that science has been importantly democratizing in its historical impact, but also that what is methodologically distinctive about science is importantly democratic already. And I have no doubt that the hopes I hold out for both science and for democracy go hand in hand in a rather deep and abiding way as well.

II.

I say that science is deeply, even definitively, democratic. You know, this is a claim of mine that seems to frustrate to no end many of my patient technocentric friends, most of whom champion both scientific practices and democratic processes quite as much as I do myself but most of whom just like to keep the two topics much more scrupulously separate than I do myself.

One exasperated critic recently insisted:
you can read that Dale is saying that science is really just what is currently popular among scientists. While there is some truth in this, it is edging dangerously towards saying that "reality" doesn't exist unless we all agree on it. Whereas, of course, the opposite is true. "Reality" doesn't care about our opinions. Science should be the search for an ever more correct description of "reality."

As it happens, I happily do say that scientific truth is whatever the rough consensus of practicing scientists and scientifically literate people says it is. Pretty much, I think "scientific truth" is a shorthand we use to describe whatever is published in respectable middlebrow high school and undergraduate college science textbooks each generation.

I will eagerly welcome the news that some new criterion has arrived on the scene above and beyond the good but imperfect criteria already on offer and on the basis of which we already judge candidate descriptions scientifically warranted, good in the way of pragmatic belief: coherence, testability, repeatability, elegance, and the rest. These criteria shepherd our beliefs toward more predictive and instrumental power, but none of them yet has delivered us certainty, finality, correspondence, synthesis, transcendence, omniscience, omnipotence, omnibenevolence, millenium... And let's just say I'm not holding my breath.

It is hard for me to see how such admissions could be taken as tantamount to saying "reality doesn't exist," since I see little evidence that any consensus around such a claim has ever formed or is likely to do among scientists or scientifically literate people. And, no, this does not seem to me to be a glib or dismissive response to the worries of my friends in the least, and certainly I do not mean it as one.

Precisely because our environment has no manifest preferences at all in the matter of how we describe it I think it is always profoundly misleading to say of scientific progress that it is best characterized as an ever more "correct" description of reality, where "correctness" is figured as a kind of incremental approach toward descriptions that mirror or map the world in some finally decisive manner.

Scientific progress happens (and it does) when our descriptions get better at giving us what we want of them. While it is obviously but uninterestingly right to say that the world is susceptible of being described in ways that yield some instrumental benefits and not others, this susceptibility underdetermines actual beliefs -- which are selected, after all, on the basis of criteria that serve us well but none of which inevitably yield final or certain results.

All the many mimetic accounts of scientific practice, all the reflective, mirroring, picturing, representational, mapping metaphors through which truth is figured as an ever closer "approximation" of word and world tend to be much more trouble than they are worth in my view. This is because while they capture some of the progressive character of scientific knowledge, they tend to do so at the cost of implying that such progress could have closure (even if only in some "ideal" but not practical sense). These delusive dreams and "regulative ideals" of finality and closure invigorate pernicious orthodoxies, buttress priestly elites, and consolidate costly distractions from useful novelties and fruitful anamolies. Further, they disavow the extent to which truths don't only "say the way the world is" but always satisfy values and desires which themselves change over time for a whole quirky range of reasons.

III.

Part of the trouble with my claim that science is democratic, of course, is that democracy is an ideal that properly means a number of different things to different people. Broadly speaking, democracy is simply the idea that people should have a say in the public decisions that affect them. A process is more democratic when and to the extent that more people have more of a say in it. But it is clearly an ideal expressed in different degrees, and with indefinitely many different implementations.

For instance, a market libertarian critic of mine has entertainingly snarked that
some of the actions you hold up as examples of democracy in action, such as sending bespectacled inspectors to shut down a [dangerous or misbehaving] science lab based on laws the scientists never contributed to (never had a say in), would be [the] antithesis [of science as democracy].

Now, scientists do things that have an impact on people other than the scientists themselves, and in relatively democratic societies those people should also have a say about such things. Scientists may choose to take heroic personal risks or make tremendous sacrifices, say, in their pursuit of new knowledge. Other scientists may assume comparable risks and costs in substantiating or refuting the results. But if scientists impose risks on others it is perfectly democratic to restrain them via regulation arrived at through legitimate processes exercised by accountable authorities.

As a scientist-stakeholder to the collaborative interrogation of the environment a scientist may grumble at an "undemocratic" "imposition" from ignorant "outsiders," but as a citizen in a democratic society in the context of which her scientific practice takes place she knows she participates as an insider and a stakeholder herself in the processes that eventuate in her own frustration in the more delimited context.

It shouldn't really be that difficult (even for a market libertarian) to see how a scientist can be a stakeholder and collaborator in more than one democratic project simultaneously, the claims of one of which can occasionally trump others without rendering any of them less democratic in consequence.

Another critic of mine has suggested that as a straightforward ethnographic sort of matter "science as practiced today is in fact more like a priestly caste telling others [what to do] than a collaborative project among most citizens." He went on, reasonably enough, to point out that "[w]hen influence is very concentrated in a small subgroup, it makes more sense to call the social context more dictatorial. In actual practice, influence is highly concentrated in science, compared to most walks of life. So it isn't relatively democratic."

Presumably, this critic is talking about the undue influence of big donors (private and public) on research, the disproportionate influence of eminent scientists over newcomers, the influence of unelected experts on the policies promulgated by elected lawmakers, and things like that.

In exchange for the democratic resonances I find at the heart of scientific practice, most of my critics discern and champion instead what they consider its "objectivity" -- a quality that sounds to me more like divine revelation the more they talk about its various merits and parts. And so, the first thing to note about this ethnographic criticism of my proposal is that it rather unexpectedly highlights aspects of actual scientific practice that tend to be emphasized by scholars who, like me, are often mistakenly criticized as "hostile to science" just because we refuse to attribute to it the presumed purity of "disinterested" objectivity or "indifference" to the play of power in the world in which, like all other practices, scientific practice also actually takes place.

That aside, I agree with my critic that what is democratic about the collaborative scientific interrogation of the environment in search of pragmatically better beliefs could and should be even further democratized by ameliorating the influence of elite interests over ongoing research. But it is hard to see why any of his qualifications would render science more essentially anti-democratic than democratic, though, even if they do suggest scientific practice and culture are open to even more beneficial democratization.

As far as the influence of experts goes, there is nothing inherently undemocratic about a division of labor. It seems especially absurd in this historical moment to propose that scientists constitute a tyrannical elite, when unscientific and actively antiscientific attitudes prevail catastrophically across George W. Bush's America. But even under Administrations relatively more sympathetic to the recommendations of knowledgeable scientists and experts it seems strange to suggest that there is something inevitably antidemocratic about their influence. Sometimes we will say of an institution or practice that it is democratic because it is directly responsive to the will of majorities, sometimes because it is administered by elected representatives, sometimes because it is accountable to such representatives, sometimes because it is defined by standards and practices administered by these representatives. Democracy takes many forms, and the practical and institutional experiments implementing the democratic idea are proliferating to this day.

IV.

Champions of consensus science like Chris Mooney (whose consistently excellent work I strongly recommend to readers of this blog) regularly decry the ways in which religious and market fundamentalists "politicize" science, the ways in which they undermine legitimate scientific standards, protocols, and published results in the cynical service of their particular political agendas.

We are all familiar with the countless ways in which established powers will work to subvert the verdicts of consensus science whenever these threaten to undermine elite privileges or expose the dispensability of parochial prejudices. Moneyed elites deny the well-established threat of climate-change, minimize the environmental impact of factory farming, croon about fictional "safe cigarettes," conceal studies that expose health risks associated with popular drugs... Social and religious conservatives champion demonstrably ineffectual "abstinence-only" education programs that put lives at risk and then seriously propose folk-poetry as a scientifically rigorous alternative to evolutionary theories.

But what worries me about the term "politicization" as a way of formulating the dangers in the political subversion of science is that it risks proposing as an alternative to this pernicious politicization of science a fantasy of depoliticized "objectivity" that is entirely unrealistic and hence, to my mind, altogether unscientific itself.

Science is a process in which scientifically literate people collaborate in various measures and in the context of well-managed relatively democratic societies to apply shared standards to the solution of problems. This process is ineradicably political in its everyday practice, in the communication of its results, in the distribution of its effects, in the determination of its applications, in the weaving of meanings arising out of its impacts.

Because science is ineradicably political it is likewise ineradicably vulnerable to abuse by political interests. Denying this inherent vulnerability to pernicious politicization by promoting a sanctimonious self-image of depoliticized objectivity does not protect science from this danger, but incomparably exacerbates it.

Science, then, it seem to me, wants good politicization, not quixotic depoliticization. And what is required first of all is a recongition of just what constitutes and supports such good politicization. Pretending not to be political, or decrying the political, or striving sanctimoniously to be oblivious to the political are all remarkably inept strategies, whatever their apparent charm and ubiquity among otherwise sensible champions of scientific culture. Science needs no priests, only collaborators.

And so, part of what I mean to propose in insisting on a tight connection between the political projects of consensus science and democratic experimentalism is to embrace a self-conscious politicization of science conceived as the collaborative interrogation of our shared environment in the service of shared ends by means of shared standards that stand the test of time.

When I say scientific practice as a project of knowledge acquisition is democratic I am simply highlighting the way in which those who propose a candidate for scientifically warranted assertibility solicit testing from across the culture of scientists, and in principle mobilize the active participation of literally every potentially scientifically literate person in the ongoing project of scientific substantiation, revision, and education. Notice that to the extent that it is the testability or falsifiability of a claim that identifies it as uniquely scientific in the first place, this implies that part of what it means for any scientifically literate person to say that they truly understand a specifically scientific account is that they can describe experimental results that have made it compelling and can explain what sorts of results would falsify it.

Scientific practice is democratic more generally to the extent that it is beholden to the demands of all of its stakeholders, who then regulate it to ensure that its costs, benefits, and risks are all distributed in ways that better reflect their actual interests. Whenever and to the extent that these conditions are met we can say of science not only that it is democratic itself, but that it is profoundly democratizing as well.

MundiMuster! Keep Partisan Spin Off Your PBS Station

[via MoveOn] The current Chairman of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, Kenneth Tomlinson, is pushing explicitly partisan programming onto your local PBS station. Now it's time to push back.

Tomlinson spent our tax dollars on a major new show with the notoriously right-wing editorial board of the Wall Street Journal. Under the guise of "balance," Tomlinson is giving yet another soapbox to powerful allies of the White House and short-changing investigative journalism on PBS.

Please call your local PBS station today, let them know you are aware they are once again under attack by shortsighted partisan Republicans and that you support them when they provide real journalism and programming that reflects the real diversity of the American experience. Can you call them today? You could say something as simple as:

"I'm a big supporter of PBS and this station. Please keep Kenneth Tomlinson's partisan spin off the air. I don't want to see those pro-Bush pundits from the Wall Street Journal —- I want real journalism."

PBS Stations in my own neck of the woods are:

KCSM-TV
650-574-6586
tv@kcsm.net

KQED-TV
415-864-2000
tv@kqed.org

KRCB-TV
707-585-8522
viewer@krcb.org

KTEH/Channel 54
408-795-5400
programming@kteh.org

It is easy to find contact information for your own local station. Just tap your zip code into the form available here at the PBS.org site, and it will direct you to the contact information you need in a split second.

Today's Random Wilde

The fact is, the public make use of the classics of a country as a means of checking the progress of Art. They degrade the classics into authorities. They use them as bludgeons for preventing the free expression of Beauty in new forms.

Monday, July 25, 2005

Libertarians in Public Places: A Few Iron Laws

1. Any “big-tent” organization big enough to accommodate libertarians will soon be a big tent empty of almost anybody but libertarians.

2. Any conversational space that actively solicits contributions from libertarian voices will soon be a conversational space in which few but libertarian voices are heard.

3. No libertarian argument will ever have any life in the world except to the extent that it is appropriated by conservatives for conservative ends.

4. No libertarian will ever take any responsibility for, nor even see any relevance in, the uses to which their arguments are put by conservatives. (For Example: Staunchly “anti-war” libertarians appear to be sublimely indifferent to the extent to which market fundamentalist utopianism drove neoconservatives to attack Iraq, and set it up as a “blank slate” for crony capitalist thievery and thuggery. I leave aside the deeper perplexity that anybody who imagines sociality as a kind of Hobbesian war of all against all can be so delusive to think themselves “anti-war” in the first place. But, of course, these sorts of rampaging self-congratulatory self-oblivious puzzles of conduct and conviction proliferate beyond any sensible reckoning whenever libertarians open their mouths.)

5. One will almost never go wrong when confronted by a self-described libertarian in simply assuming that by this term they mean to say they are a Republican who wants to smoke pot legally.

6. Any figure seeking public office, whether libertarian or conservative, who tells you that government is nothing more than a vast organized gang of corrupt incompetent lying criminal thugs is announcing in advance how they are likely to behave once they have obtained power in government.

Saturday, July 23, 2005

The Random Wilde

I delight in men over seventy. They always offer one the devotion of a lifetime.

Democratic Governors Embrace Technoprogressive Apollo Program

[via the Nation] Six more Democratic governors -- Rod Blagojevich (IL), Jim Doyle (WI), Christine Gregoire (WA), Ted Kulongoski (OR), Janet Napolitano (AZ), and Brian Schweitzer (MT) -- have joined with three Democratic governors who were already on board -- Jennifer Granholm (MI), Ed Rendel (PA), and Bill Richardson (NM) -- in embracing the technoprogressive Apollo Alliance's excellent goal of achieving sustainable American energy independence within a decade's time.

As The Nation's Editor, Katrina vanden Heuvel points out in her blog, the Apollo Alliance
calls for a national investment of $300 billion over the course of ten years to build the basic production and distribution infrastructure needed for a cleaner energy economy. Less than the estimated costs of the Iraq war (after just two years), the investment would pay for itself many times over. Direct economic benefits would include annual energy savings and improvements in our trade balance of about $200 billion; the creation of some 3 million permanent new jobs; and an added $1 trillion in GDP over ten years.

Given the enormous opportunities for energy savings in cities and renewable energy production in rural areas, Apollo would distribute savings and jobs to two distressed parts of our population. It would also give a kick to US manufacturing, giving companies a good reason to invest in the surging world market for clean energy products and technology. It makes both environmental and economic sense....

Apollo has already gained the endorsement of virtually the entire labor movement (including both warring factions at the AFL-CIO), most major environmental groups, a slew of civil rights and community organizations (both urban and rural), and a growing number of business leaders. Now, with more governors coming on board, it may be reaching a critical mass in tipping state legislation, if not yet federal, toward a clean energy future.

I've long been a fan of Apollo, and am thrilled to see some good news on the technoprogressive front.

Technoprogressivism is what happens when progressives take up new tools and new knowledge and work together through collaboration, social struggle, and legitimate democratic, deliberative, and accountable processes to direct and regulate these tools to serve human needs, human rights, and human emancipation.

Progress is social struggle, not spontaneous order. Every tool, like every truth, is a shape-shifter. We will use the Master's Tools to dismantle the Master's House. For when we take up his tools for our own they are no longer the Master's tools. They are new tools for a New House. They are new pens for new poems.

Sunday, July 17, 2005

Saturday, July 16, 2005

Where's the Technocriticism?

I realize that to the extent that Amor Mundi could be said to have anything like a loyal readership it would consist of people drawn to my more technocentric technoprogressive technocritical writing.

Just like last year about this time I am teaching intensives in Summer Sessions here at Cal and it is a real sponge of my time and attention -- with the added problem this time around that I am responding to my Committee's editorial suggestions for this blasted dissertation and trying to finish everything in time to file ahead of going on the job market. As you see, I'm posting more conventional political commentary these days rather than the more technocentric stuff that interests me (and most of you) most, just because it is so much easier to toss off.

But, be assured, posts on chimeras, prostheticizing consent, nanoscale social democracy, peer-to-peer social service provision, proportionate precaution as a democratizing framework for developmental deliberation, vegetarian cyborgs, and why Battlestar Galactica threatens patriarchy more appealingly than any show in living memory will all find their way to Amor Mundi soon enough.

And speaking of "Amor Mundi" -- the personal motto of the incomparable philosopher Hannah Arendt to whom this blog is dedicated -- Arendt's new book The Promise of Politics, never before published in anything like its full form, will arrive at long last later this month to fill the gap in my Arendt shelf between The Origins of Totalitarianism and The Human Condition. I've got the book on order and will likely have something to say about it here soon after I read it. More to come, but for now, probably mostly more current events....

Cackles from the Balcony: ArmandoWatch

I have commented before that a prolific and prominently front-paged dKos diarist named Armando has managed to transform the Daily Kos website for me from an indispensable resource to a well-nigh unbearable unreadable and utterly dispensable one.

Eric has commented that Kos himself clearly recognizes the threat Armando poses to the credibility of his site, since Kos posts some uncharacteristically and unapologetically true-left comment, usually on a topic perpendicular to Armando's so as not to seem to attack him explicitly, but almost inevitably later in the same day or on the morning just following Armando's latest affront so as to bolster the progressives who still read his site and keep it alive.

If Eric is right in his hunch this is doubly promising, first, because it means we can expect something genuinely progressive to appear quite soon from Kos (Kos is in general less reliably progressive than are the proprietors of Eschaton, Liberal Oasis, Hullaballoo, and the like) and, second, because it keeps alive my earnest hope that Armando might soon be encouraged to eclipse himself altogether and go wherever it is that DLC-types finally do go to languish and smugly contemplate the damage they have done.

Oh, the comment of Armando's that provoked this little fit of pique on my part?

In a post under the title "Mainstream Values" -- a phrase delusive DLC-types love to conjure with, fancying themselves the "face of America" despite the fact that they can't raise a dollar from Americans, win a single election in America, or move the imaginations of actually existing Americans outside the beltway -- Armando writes: "If Bush is to keep his word [namely, to nominate to the Supreme Court a 'fair-minded individual who represents the mainstream of American law and American values'], that means the Extremists of the GOP must get stiff-armed."

That's a throwaway bit of obviousness to lure in your average reality-based liberal type, which then sets the scene for the odious gravy which is the real reason for Armando's post: "Many folks see Attorney General Gonzales as such a p[r]ick. I do not."

Yes, Armando rises above the benighted masses of the "many folks" of the dKos readership who might be tempted to locate torture-memo writin' Geneva-Convention deridin' "Abu Gonzales" among "the Extremists of the GOP" rather than the Armando approved "mainstream."

Again, I have already said that one expects Armando to spew shit. What is depressing in the extreme is to read the comments that follow from one of these Armando postings, expecting that surely within a handful of replies at the most one will encounter a chorus of righteous outrage and fact-based critique that will demolish and deflate this Reagan-democrat-Clinton-republican-pod-person or whatever he is.

But reply after reply comes and goes with nary a peep of protest. As with his smug suggestion that queers should stop bellyaching about marriage, or that we should all kiss Judith Miller's corn-encrusted toesies, or that we should be glad that the Kelo decision nudged America one step further along the road that says only corporations can own property, this disgusting effort to "mainstream torture" inspired protest only dozens and dozens and dozens of comments deep. Whereupon, one finds, one "fightorleave" finally raising his hand in a perplexed bid for sanity:
Does anybody really believe that Shrub will select somebody who represents the mainstream? Does anyone really believe that Gonzales is mainstream?

He is by definition extreme. He is the man who says that Shrub can suspend the Geneva Convention. He is the man who says that Shrub can hold people indefinitely, and torture (oops sorry abuse) people to his heart's content.

If any Democrat or Liberal thinks that this would be a good or compromise choice is, respectfully, insane. This man has no business on the Court. He belongs in jail.

The more important point is that there are hundreds if not thousands of qualified people, and Shrub could, if he really cared about this country, nominate someone who would unite rather than divide this country. Is he the pres. of the u.s.a. or the pres. of the republican party. And, for Shrub, to nominate him is actually a slap in the face to us (not them).

Quite so. How depressing how long it took anybody to say this. Armando is not just awful, but he attracts awfulness, awful fistfuls of offal. I fear dKos cannot long survive intact a spot-lit Armando there.

Thursday, July 14, 2005

Today's Random Wilde

It is only shallow people who do not judge by appearances. The true mystery of the world is the visible, not the invisible.

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Craven like a Fox

Roger Mosey, the head of BBC Television News, pointedly comments:
A contributor to Fox [News] said after the London bombings that "the BBC almost operates as a foreign registered agent of Hezbollah and some of the other jihadist groups." On the Fox website today there is an opinion piece, "How Jane Fonda and the BBC put you in danger". I am writing this in a building which was bombed by Irish terrorists. My colleagues and I are living in a city recovering from the wounds inflicted last week. If I may leave our customary impartiality aside for a moment, the comments made on Fox News are beneath contempt.

Quite so, but never forget that when it comes to FOX News, what they say is never just beneath contempt, but born of contempt for decency and truth, and an expression of contempt for the intelligence of their viewers.

Monday, July 11, 2005

Health Care Is A Right

Just yesterday I claimed that calls for “single payer” universal health care had little hope for success in the United States, however sensible and urgent they may be. I proposed (without offering up anything in the way of useful details, of course) that the best way of going about nudging the US health care system in the direction of something like Canadian sanity would probably be through ongoing expansion and reform of Medicare instead. Anyway, despite all that it should go without saying that nothing would please me more than to be proved wrong and find a powerful coalition of state governments, professional medical associations, strapped modest businesspeople, unions, and such organizing to demand single payer. Here’s a link to an AP story about some folks making appealing, plausible noises and plans in this general vein at the moment. Too early for hope, but just the right time for helpful support.

Another Turn of the Screw?

The latest leaked memo from Great Britain references presumably secret plans to withdraw a majority of British and American troops from Iraq by the middle of next year. Chris Bowers of MyDD offers up a comment so breathtakingly perverse it has about it a truly prophetic ring: “Make no mistake: if Republicans become the party of withdrawal before Democrats are able to do so, they will comfortably sweep the 2006 midterms. An increasingly restless public wants out of Iraq within one year. If Democrats are unable to support an idea favored not only by the vast majority of their own voters, but also by a significant majority of all voters, we will deservedly appear to be a party that stands for nothing.”

Today's Random Wilde

If property had simply pleasures, we could stand it; but its duties make it unbearable. In the interest of the rich we must get rid of it.

Sunday, July 10, 2005

Mort a Credit

"When I was young I thought that money was the most important thing in life," Oscar Wilde once commented. "[N]ow that I am old I know that it is." A new study from the University of Michigan bears out the brutality of Wilde's observation in the starkest terms:
Wealthier elders are significantly less likely than poorer ones to suffer pain at the end of their lives...

Specifically, men and women age 70 or older whose net worth was $70,000 or higher were 30 percent less likely than poorer people to have felt pain often during the year before they died. This difference persisted after the researchers controlled for age, gender, ethnicity, education and diagnosis.

Wealthier elders also experienced a lower number of symptoms overall, the study found. Those in the wealthiest half of the elderly population not only had less pain, but were less likely to suffer from shortness of breath and depression...

The researchers for the study "were especially interested in symptoms of pain, depression, and shortness of breath at the end of life. 'These are treatable symptoms... and not an inevitable part of the dying process.'"


Given the hysterical denial with which American society circumvents any attention to abiding uncomfortable facts of life especially where matters of aging or class are concerned, one expects the modest and palpably helpful recommendations of any study focused simultaneously on both of these unpleasant realities to have less of an impact than one might otherwise wish.

Also likely to be ignored are manifestly sensible proposals that arrive immediately and inevitably on the heels of even cursory contemplation of studies like this, such as:
"To break the connection between wealth and suffering at the end of life, the government might consider expanding Medicare to include medications, or expanding the criteria for hospice [care] to include older adults with significant symptoms, regardless of their prognosis. Currently, hospice treatment is covered only for those whose physicians certify to have less than six months to live.

"This would enable older adults to access medications regardless of ability to pay... It would also improve access to services for underserved and vulnerable populations."

This provides another welcome argumentative avenue for advocating an expansion of Medicare. Although imperiled at the moment, Medicare is still such a popular and effective program I personally think advocating its ongoing expansion is probably better from both a practical and rhetorical standpoint than are proposals for sweeping, unweildily wonky "single-payer" and "universal coverage" schemes and the like to ameliorate the savage inequalities and breathtakingly pointless waste of American health care provision as is and to set the stage for a more equitable provision of rejuvination and modification therapies to come.

But I'll admit that in the present political climate, that is to say in this so-called "culture of life" that is all fists and elbows, I feel more despair than hope for the prospects of any reasonable recommendations in the near term. Although it's as true as ever that you can't take it with you, for now it remains just as true that, in America at any rate, what you have matters much more than it should on just how you have to take it when it finally comes.

More Random Wilde

I have made an important discovery … that alcohol, taken in sufficient quantities, produces all the effects of intoxication.

Saturday, July 09, 2005

The Constitution Under the Coming Era of Stricter Constructionism

We the Right sort of People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Racket, Punish uppity inferiors, impose conformity, provide bomb builders with billions, promote our own Special Interests, and secure the Blessings of Authority to ourselves and our Posterity do revise and establish this Constitution for the United States of America, One Empire Under One God, Amen.

More Snake-Handlers Less Science for a New Amurrica

[via Yahoo!News]
Numbers of science and engineering graduates from European and Asian universities are soaring while new degrees in the United States have stagnated...

In 2000... 17 percent of university bachelor degrees in the U.S. were in science and engineering compared with a world average of 27 percent and 52 percent in China.

The picture among doctorates -- key to advanced scientific research -- was more striking. In 2001, universities in the European Union granted 40 percent more science and engineering doctorates than the United States, with that figure expected to reach nearly 100 percent by about 2010...

The article frames these developments as signals of a terrifying loss of "American dominance," but for me they signal a considerably more terrifying withdrawal of American participation in the growing global conversation of scientific research and invention. To lose "dominance" while gaining peers and global collaborators in the projects of social and scientific progress would palpably be a benefit for us all, even if it might occasionally impose short-term and superficial disciplines on those aspects of the so-called "American Way of Life" that brainlessly demand a right to two SUVs in every garage and two cows on every plate. But to see America turning its back on the fragile accomplishments and values of shared democracy and shared scholarship is the truly terrifying spectacle. It is no mistake that the religious and market fundamentalists of the Bush Administration are so relentlessly attacking both science and democracy at once. Cultures of criticism and collaboration go hand in hand, and this is what authoritarian conservatives cannot stand.

Today's Random Wilde

Patriotism is the virtue of the vicious.

Friday, July 08, 2005

Best Show on Television

Over on Salon, Laura Miller has written a Valentine to the best show on television today. The second season of Battlestar Galactica premieres one week from tonight, Friday, July 15, on the SciFi Network.

The Heteronomous Character of Technological Development

A reader has asked just what do I mean when I write that "'technological development is the last remaining historical force abroad in the world that could plausibly be described as potentially revolutionary.' What kind of revolution?"

He goes on to elaborate this question in interesting ways, wondering "are you arguing that technology is an autonomous force? And if so, are you saying that it acts upon society?" He continues: "When you say that 'technological development' is an 'historical force' it seems that you are holding to the idea that technology has an existence separate from its social context and that it determines society in a substantive way. Is that true?"

Finally, he recalls my attention to Murray Bookchin, who argues, in this reader's formulation, "that technology gets its meaning from the social matrix within which it develops. It would be slightly too simplistic, but roughly accurate to say that he switches the determination of society by technology to technology by society. It's not a one-way causation, but a shift in emphasis from modernist epistemology of science and technics. I think this position still denies not only that technology doesn't have its own autonomous meaning from society, but also that society does not have any 'natural' or 'pristine' meaning apart from its technology. Any thoughts?"

I have responded in e-mail to these great questions and provocations, but I wanted to blog some of them as well, for the more general audience that throngs hereabouts. I will begin with the last point here and work my way backward to the first one.

I think of technology as the elaboration of human agency and maintain that such agency is always a matter of improvisation within constraint. I feel the force of this formulation of Bookchin's point about the social matrix in which the meaning of technology always arises, but I would say that this "matrix" is always at once enabling but underdeterminative. Neither the agentic acts of improvisation nor the constraints themselves from which they derive their legibility are absolute themselves. Some agentic performances cite norms, some subvert them, and all in various measures. Further, what Bookchin would presumably refer to here as "the matrix" is of course really more a matter of matrices, some overlapping, some incompatible, some in contestation, some developing out of one another, etc.

And so, I have no truck with claims about technological autonomy nor with the arguments that typically result from such claims which assume either some particularly dreaded or desired developmental outcome is "inevitable" because it is "written in" somehow into the technologies themselves, apart from the human practices in which technologies are always invented, tested, used, distributed, marketed, discussed, applied, made meaningful, etc.

It would indeed appear inevitable that a number of emerging and converging technological developments confront humanity with the key possibilities and dangers that will define our generation -- but just which developmental configuration, just when, in just what forms is radically up for grabs. That is to say, few of the crucial or really interesting details are anything like "inevitable" themselves.

It should be noted that on pages 154-156 of Re–Enchanting Humanity (London: Cassell, 1995) Bookchin actually claims:
The notion that science and technology are ‘autonomous’ of society, that they themselves are controlling factors in guiding society is perhaps one of the most insidious illusions of our time. That science and technics conduct lines of research and open visions toward new developments is certainly true, but these developments are rigorously guided by the prevailing market society rather than the other way round ... technology is a heteronomous or dependent phenomenon ... to emphasise its autonomy from society and the mystique of a ‘technological imperative,’ crudely obscur[es] the profoundly social factors that promote or inhibit technological innovation.

I agree with this formulation wholeheartedly, and think that Bookchin does not invert or replace developmental "autonomy" with social determination at all here, but proposes a considerably more nuanced developmental heteronomy to which far more technocriticism should be sensitive.

And so, when I describe technological development as a plausible source for revolutionary transformation, what do I mean if I do not mean to imbue development with autonomy or freight it with such inevitabilities, then?

I simply maintain that the technoconstituted transformation of human capacities via emerging and converging digital networked information and communication technologies, biomedicine, neuroceuticals, automation, and nanoscale manufacturing uniquely confronts our generation in history with a host of occasions for an opportunistic re-ordering of social institutions in either more congenial or more disastrous forms. Technological development is never just a matter of the indifferent accumulation of facts and toys in a kind of heap. "Development" is always a matter of social struggle. This is why technoprogressives insist that progress always has both instrumental and political dimensions. But the circumstances of social struggle, and the specific opportunities it affords and dangers it confronts from moment to moment are significantly contingent. This is the furthest thing from a suggestion that development is socially autonomous. I will have more to say about what I mean when I go on to suggest such developmental struggles can be revolutionary in a later blog post.

Thursday, July 07, 2005

Statement on the London Bombings by George Galloway

[via Socialist Worker Online]
We extend our condolences to those who have lost their lives today and our heartfelt sympathy to all those who have been injured by the bombs in London.

No one can condone acts of violence aimed at working people going about their daily lives. They have not been a party to, nor are they responsible for, the decisions of their government. They are entirely innocent and we condemn those who have killed or injured them.

The loss of innocent lives, whether in this country or Iraq, is precisely the result of a world that has become a less safe and peaceful place in recent years.

We have worked without rest to remove the causes of such violence from our world. We argued, as did the Security Services in this country, that the attacks on Afghanistan and Iraq would increase the threat of terrorist attack in Britain. Tragically Londoners have now paid the price of the government ignoring such warnings.

We urge the government to remove people in this country from harms way, as the Spanish government acted to remove its people from harm, by ending the occupation of Iraq and by turning its full attention to the development of a real solution to the wider conflicts in the Middle East.

Only then will the innocents here and abroad be able to enjoy a life free of the threat of needless violence.

George Galloway, Respect MP for Bethnal Green and Bow

Wednesday, July 06, 2005

More Random Wilde

It is only by not paying one's bills that one can hope to live in the memory of the commercial classes.

Cackles from the Balcony

Yet another Presidential bicycle “accident”? Eric darkly suggests that there is nothing afoot here that Betty Ford couldn’t cope with, but I begin to suspect a massive Rovian anti-environmentalist campaign to undermine public confidence about the safety of bicycle use…

Monday, July 04, 2005

Today's Random Wilde

Morality is simply the attitude we adopt towards people whom we personally dislike.

"Armando" Muses on "Marriage"

A consistently, one might say relentlessly, annoying and presently high-profile dKos diarist call-signed “Armando” has managed to transform the Daily Kos from a site I would eagerly turn to several times a day for American lefty news and commentary into one that I now read only when I have found nothing to compel my attention elsewhere from more witty, insightful, and politically reliable sources like Eschaton, Hullabaloo, Liberal Oasis, and James Wolcott.

Armando’s smug centrist missteps and misfires usually inspire an eye-roll, dismissive tongue-cluck, and a quick mouse-click toward sense somewhere else in the cyberspatial sprawl, but today his post on gay marriage provokes an actual comment. This is not because it is more egregious than other discursive dishes he has recently served up (I think his morally tone-deaf encomium to the disastrous Kelo v. City of New London decision was probably even more aggravating to me), but because his post is so typical of an oafish mindset that often effloresces among especially the straight white “some of my best friends are gay –- but shut the fuck up with your whining about being treated as a citizen we’re trying to win elections here” guys of a certain age who apparently throng the broader dKos community (and, one assumes, the Democratic Party) whenever queer issues come up.

Armando begins innocuously (and ungrammatically): “From California, the question presents itself -- does equal rights for gays require gay marriage?”

Then comes this encouraging bit of news, ripped straight as it were from today's headlines:
California's attorney general on Friday urged the state Supreme Court to decide whether gay marriage is permitted under the state constitution. Attorney General Bill Lockyer asked the justices to review a trial judge's decision in March that said state laws limiting marriage to heterosexual couples is unconstitutional; the ruling had been stayed pending appeal.

... The move came two days after gays and lesbians won a major legal victory before the state Supreme Court, which let stand a new law granting registered domestic partners many of the same rights and protections of heterosexual marriage.

“Do gay rights require the word ‘marriage’?” asks Armando, deflating the stakes from the outset by pretending this is a matter of mere wordplay. “Of course,” he quickly adds, waving his hand to ward off any suggestion that he might not quite grasp the reality of the oppression of his queer brothers and sisters, why, some of his best friends may well be gay, “the reason for denying gays the use of the word marriage to describe their relationships is homophobia, in my opinion.”

Now, stop. Pause here. Re-read that caveat.

If it is true that the denial of marriage to committed queer relationships that would avail themselves of marriage if they could is homophobia, and homophobia is wrong, and wrongs should be righted, then what does one expect to follow from such an analysis?

Why, an abstract apolitical discourse on marriage, of course! No cocks penetrating asses on marriage beds here, thank heavens! No dykes on bikes or silly hairdressers mincing about demanding that they be treated as human beings and losing “us” votes. Nothing to offend the white muscular war-mongering consumerist Christ of middle-America.

Armando dons his professorial spectacles and settles into a club chair, the cushion of which exhales a long languourous fart. “[S]hould ‘marriage’ be a matter for the State? For the Church?”

You may notice that Armando has now put “marriage” in quotation marks. This is possibly because he is no longer talking about the kind of marriage that everybody knows is quite conspicuously a matter for the State and the Church[es] in the actual world we actually live in, but some different phenomenon, also called “marriage,” one which presumably sets in motion instead the sophistical energies that once impelled medieval scholars to contend over the number of angels that can dance on pin-heads.

“Should all relationships, heterosexual and gay, be ‘civil unions’ for the purposes of the law and government?” I don’t know, Armando, should they? It’s an awfully interesting question. Oh, I’m sorry, I fell asleep there for a second. Here are some questions for you. Pop quiz, hot shot:

Do you see any likelihood that marriage will be disarticulated from the State any time soon? Are you going to devote your considerable energies to that project? Or is this an issue about which you don’t care at all, really, except in rare moments when some queer people actually seem to take a little real-world baby-step in the direction of greater citizenship and thereby attract some scary public attention in the process?

Do you really think that the fundamentalist Christians and others who supposedly swoon at the thought of queer people being treated as human beings and participating in human social institutions like marriage will be more likely to join you in a grand project to re-invent marriage altogether? Do you expect anyone who is now or desires to be married to cheerfully resign themselves to a transformation of the institution into a purely private matter or spiritual exercise unconnected to civil union contracts? Do you actually think that homophobic straights would be more pleased to share the status of their more modest civil unions with queer people as equals than they are the more capacious status of marriage in the first place?

As it happens, I find marriage to be a profoundly suspect institution, originating in ugly possessive patriarchy and now suffused with damagingly unrealistic romantic pop-psychological propaganda. It remains to be seen whether marriage as an institution might grow into something more interesting and rewarding in the fullness of time. To be honest, I have my doubts, but my partner Eric and I wouldn’t mind an equal opportunity to participate in that experiment, however suspicious we may be about its problematic history and debased reality. However that may be, there is simply no question at all that the denial of this institution to the likes of us facilitates our ongoing exploitation and dehumanization and stigmatization in ways that render us vulnerable to violence and abuse and threatened in our status as equal citizens.

Whoever wants to challenge the legitimacy of bourgeois patriarchal marriage has my sympathy and my interested ear –- but the extension of marriage as it is actually constituted in the world to all the citizens who would make recourse to it is an altogether different order of question than that. Please don’t try to pretend the homophobic denial of marriage to queer people is an episode in some broader revolutionary project to transform, demolish, or secularize marriage as such. Don’t add insult to injury by telling me you’re not a homophobic asshole, really, but some kind of freedom fighter when you deny me my rights as a fellow-citizen, or yawn in the face of my ongoing institutional stigmatization.

Sunday, July 03, 2005

Progress: Weighting Instrumental Empowerment and Political Empowerment

A couple of days back in the first of this series of posts about technoprogressivism, I wrote:
Technoprogressivism assumes that technological developments can be empowering and emancipatory so long as they are regulated by legitimate democratic and accountable authorities to ensure that their costs, risks and benefits are all fairly shared by the actual stakeholders to those developments.... At its heart technoprogressivism is simply 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.

This passage has provoked some interesting criticisms and replies.

I proposed that "[t]echnoprogressivism is a stance of support for such technological development in general, and for consensual human practices of genetic, prosthetic, and cognitive modification in particular." But, keeping in mind what I already described as the technoprgressive insistence that both instrumental and political dimensions of progress always be taken into account, one reader asked whether this "support" of democratically legitimate development, then, always requires "that risks and benefits will all be fairly shared" in fact?

He went on to say: "This assumption is certainly false. We can and should aim towards increasing fairness, but in at least the short-term, the world will obviously remain substantially unfair. Is technoprogressivism in favor of technological development even under these real-world conditions?"

I'm not sure why a commitment to fairness would seem to imply as well a commitment to such perfectionism. I accept the pragmatic commonplace that one should not let the best be the enemy of the good.

Also, since "technoprogressive" denotes a diversity of sympathetic perspectives it would have to accommodate "suboptimal" outcomes from particular perspectives as a matter of course.

It's true that I wrote that technoprogressives champion a "fair distribution of costs, risks, and benefits" rather than simply a "fairer distribution," but this was not because of any perfectionism so much as because the appeal of the fairer seems to me to be entailed already in a commitment to the fair...

But even more than this, from a rhetorical and behavioral standpoint, it seems to me that settling for "fairer" in this formulation would seem to signal or justify a complacent or resigned acceptance of too much substantial unfairness.

My interlocutor continued: "There are at least some kinds of technological development I would want to see even if the world remained at the same level of fairness as it currently is, and even if these developments didn't affect fairness at all. Stronger, there would be at least hypothetical cases where I would favor making a small sacrifice in fairness to secure a huge gain in beneficial technological capability. (Say, one more woman will be unfairly discriminated against in the work place and at the same time 20 million people will be cured of cancer who would otherwise have died of the disease -- I'd say it would be hard to say no to that.)"

While I concede the possibility in principle of situations in which extraordinary instrumental benefits might justify marginal diminishments of fairness, I do not concede that this is anything like so commonplace a situation as to justify weighting instrumentality over fairness as a general principle.

I think that those who imagine themselves unduly inconvenienced by the impact of widespread commitments to social justice might complain that this results in a pernicious diminishment or deceleration of instrumental progress, but I think such claims are almost always overblown and deeply suspect.

Of course, from moment to moment we inevitably and reasonably make these sorts of trade-offs all the time. One certainly weights the value of instrumental progress over political progress occasionally, just as occasionally the converse is true. But generalizing from a particular case in which the focus might be on instrumental over political empowerment or vice-versa to a principled weighting of the one over the other is a trickier matter for which one would need to step back and answer the questions: just who benefits? just who is asked to sacrifice?

And such discussions italicize the very tendencies that compel technnoprogressives toward a more tight coupling of instrumental/political senses of progress in the first place. What, finally, does it really mean to speak of some abstract instrumental benefit garnered at the cost of specific political benefit? If some are willing to sacrifice justice -- usually conspicuously the justice enjoyed by somebody else rather than themselves -- all to secure more of some generalized instrumental power, then surely these same calculations will subsequently articulate the sociopolitical distribution of that consequent instrumental power itself?

To weight the instrumental over the political in general will usually amount to outright dismissiveness of political progress in practice as anything but a secondary or even completely incidental consideration.

Such a general weighting also seems to me to misunderstand the extent to which these two registers of progress are historically interdependent. This is especially true in relatively democratic societies in which greater fairness incubates wider participation in the collaborative effort of research, innovation, and oversight that eventuates in instrumental progress in the first place.

My reader went on to complain quite reasonably that "[w]e wouldn't say no to a bit more fairness even if it didn't bring better technology. Why say no to better technology even if it doesn't bring more fairness?"

My hesitation to make my formulation more symmetrical here is because I think in circumstances in which substantial unfairness prevails better technology seems dangerously likely to consolidate or exacerbate this unfairness. I certainly would not "say no" to better technology that failed to secure more fairness so long as it didn't still further diminish fairness or ameliorate the effects of unfairness.

But, again, one wants to be sensitive to the reasonable fears, suspicions, and criticisms of those who know all too well that technology augments power and that the relatively more powerful are prone to retroactively justify their abuses and get away with them or to sustain their utter indifference to such considerations altogether. Because I have a strong commitment to political progress I am especially sensitive to general formulations that might denigrate or undermine it.

I am not at all convinced by claims that a strong commitment to political progress demands a substantial diminishment of the instrumental progress to which I am also strongly committed. However, I will say I am convinced that formulations championing instrumental progress that are insensitive to the political dimensions of progress render the case for instrumental progress less compelling for wide audiences and in ways that probably do indeed frustrate that instrumental progress.

Saturday, July 02, 2005

Today's Random Wilde

Nature is a kind of trick played on art.

Technorealism and Technoprogressivism

A fellow CybDemite friend has recalled my attention to the Technorealists, who kicked up a fuss with which I broadly sympathized at the height of the irrational libertopian exuberance of the so-called dot.com era in the 1990s. From the "preamble" to a laundry list of Principles published in an effort to launch a movement that foundered soon thereafter, one finds formulations that bespeak many of the same frustrations and hopes that impelled me to propose some new terminology and topoi for technocentric technoprogressive technocriticism. (Perhaps I should have said technoterminology and technotopoi, since I seem to preface everything else with that these days to "make it new.") Anyway, here's a snippet:
In this heady age of rapid technological change, we all struggle to maintain our bearings. The developments that unfold each day in communications and computing can be thrilling and disorienting. One understandable reaction is to wonder: Are these changes good or bad? Should we welcome or fear them?

The answer is both. Technology is making life more convenient and enjoyable, and many of us healthier, wealthier, and wiser. But it is also affecting work, family, and the economy in unpredictable ways, introducing new forms of tension and distraction, and posing new threats to the cohesion of our physical communities.

Despite the complicated and often contradictory implications of technology, the conventional wisdom is woefully simplistic. Pundits, politicians, and self-appointed visionaries do us a disservice when they try to reduce these complexities to breathless tales of either high-tech doom or cyber-elation. Such polarized thinking leads to dashed hopes and unnecessary anxiety, and prevents us from understanding our own culture.

Over the past few years, even as the debate over technology has been dominated by the louder voices at the extremes, a new, more balanced consensus has quietly taken shape. This document seeks to articulate some of the shared beliefs behind that consensus, which we have come to call technorealism.

Technorealism demands that we think critically about the role that tools and interfaces play in human evolution and everyday life. Integral to this perspective is our understanding that the current tide of technological transformation, while important and powerful, is actually a continuation of waves of change that have taken place throughout history. Looking, for example, at the history of the automobile, television, or the telephone -- not just the devices but the institutions they became -- we see profound benefits as well as substantial costs. Similarly, we anticipate mixed blessings from today's emerging technologies, and expect to forever be on guard for unexpected consequences -- which must be addressed by thoughtful design and appropriate use.

As technorealists, we seek to expand the fertile middle ground between techno-utopianism and neo-Luddism. We are technology "critics" in the same way, and for the same reasons, that others are food critics, art critics, or literary critics. We can be passionately optimistic about some technologies, skeptical and disdainful of others. Still, our goal is neither to champion nor dismiss technology, but rather to understand it and apply it in a manner more consistent with basic human values.

I always did regret that "technorealism" seemed rather to fizzle like yet another digital fad -- but it is true that many of the figures who were conspicuous among the technorealists in its brief blaze are still doing quite valuable and interesting work I would describe as broadly technoprogressive: Paulina Borsook, Douglas Rushkoff, Andrew Shapiro.

Nevertheless, I'll admit that I am leery of the temptation so many technocentric commentators and advocates seem to have of organizing "movements" under the heading of "principles" published in "founding documents" that "members" are expected to sign off on.

I consider movements a somewhat embarrassingly twentieth century way of political organizing, frankly, and one that doesn't leave much to recommend it.

I prefer more inclusive conversations and more concrete campaigns rather than exclusive monolithic identity movements. I prefer more complex sensibilties rather than readily intelligible personal identities.

And quite apart from all this, I just don't think that technorealism provided anything like a dependable home for the explicitly progressive conversations and campaigns I crave, because it seemed to lodge itself in a realism defined as little more than a moderateness between whatever passes for the extremes of technological discourse in any given moment.

The difficulty of determining what kind of criteria govern the various Principles in the founding document of the technorealist non-movement symptomizes this deficiency, I would say.

Very broad and important points (such as the crucial "Principle One: Technologies are not neutral" or the attractively Lanieresque/Haylesesque "Principle Four: Information is not Knowledge") are weighted exactly the same as policy points (such as "Principle Five: Wiring the schools will not save them").

Now, I think of technoprogressive as a word to describe campaigns, arguments, ideas, values, that stand in a conversational relationship to one another, that incubate political and cultural campaigns that have a broad family resemblance, that come out of a recognizable sensibility and all... but which by no means align into any kind of customary profile, underwrite any kind of stable identity, or could, you know, fill the pews of yet another stainless-steel church for desperate dupes. There are quite enough Ayn Raelian Scientologists selling Amway products across the blighted saucer-eyed trauma-terrain of middle-class middle-America already, thank you very much, without yet another libertopian robot clone cult barking orders and wheedling for cash.

I think of "technoprogressive" as a word that really means what it appears to mean roughly the moment you encounter it, without much in the way of explanatory throat-clearing or stage setting necessary: It denotes varieties of technocentric progressivism.

Technoprogressivism really is committed to progress.

I don't mean "progress" as a parochial self-congratulatory fable, or as yet another "key to history" for elites to brandish in their skeleton hands, but progress as a great democratic work we are all of us contentiously collaborating on together.

Technoprogressives are committed to both instrumental progress and social progress at once and as a unitary (tho' probably lumpily distributed) sort of project. And they are focused, someof them fascinated even, by technological developments in particular as the fraught terrain on which this progress will be best facilitated or frustrated.

But notice, I described before a "technoprogressivism BEYOND technophilia and technophobia," not one lodged BETWEEN them. It is because it affirms progress that technoprogressivism is valuable and appealing, not because it looks for some middle ground, or whatever passes as moderation or realpolitik in any given historical moment of corporate hype or luddite panic.

Progressives do not denigrate the project to interpret the world, or to accommodate the diverse demands of actually existing people in the world, but they know, as the man said, the point is to change it.

I am as committed and pragmatic a champion of realism and reasonableness as the next guy, certainly, but it is progress that I am after first of all. Once that is established then we can talk together as peers about what progress consists of and how best to bring it about.

Friday, July 01, 2005