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

Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Guarding Against Technoprogressive Avant-Gardism

I'll start with a typical intellectual's sort of insight on practical technodevelopmental politics, useful enough as far as it goes.

If technoprogressives are right to insist that technological development is always also and first of all social struggle, then it is key to recognize the somewhat paradoxical priority of politics over technology for progressive technological development. This explains why technoprogressives know to prioritize a shared commitment to democracy and fairness over a shared enthusiasm for particular technologies as the source of their solidarity.

The funding of, regulation of, assessment of, deployment of, distribution of costs, risks, and benefits of, meaningful dissemination of and education about technologies are always ineradicably political. Enthusiasms about particular technologies will themselves always be articulated by political positioning, just as different political assumptions will expose deep differences in superficially shared commitments to the role of technological development in securing human freedom, dignity, diversity, and choice. What people mean by "freedom," "dignity," "diversity," and "choice" will be articulated by these political assumptions more than anything else.

We should certainly expect that an "avant-garde" of committed technoprogressive activists and intellectuals will advocate a coherent general program and theoretical perspective -- even more likely, a few of them -- that discerns a shared sensibility or common aims in certain figures (Condorcet, Wells, Dyson, Haraway, etc.) and certain momentous ongoing social struggles (sustainable development, reproductive freedom, copyfight/p2p, Green/fair trade alternative globalization, basic income, etc).

But it seems misguided to me to expect or demand all of the individuals actually contributing to technoprogressive campaigns, struggles, and cultural work to recognize their efforts as such a contribution or even to approve necessarily of such a consequence should it be explained to them. And so, technoprogressive intellectuals (like me) must resist the temptation to identify the struggle itself with whatever it is we say about it or, even worse, imagine that we are somehow directing that struggle. We are, I suppose, just making sense of the struggle as best we can with the tools at our disposal like everybody else does and contributing to that struggle as best we can with the gifts and efforts we bring to bear like everybody else does.

It will be very useful of course to articulate a program from which these larger connections can be discerned, to provide a wider and more historically informed perspective which recommends developmental interventions, practical tactics, unexpected rhetorical moves, strategies for outreach and alliance, etc. and which provides further resources for understanding the implications and interdependencies of particular contingent developments. But what should be the role of such programs or perspectives for their "adherents"?

I think political programs and theoretical perspectives are tools that enable us to better discern and understand currents and struggles and opportunities already afoot in the world, and to help nudge them in desirable directions and into desirable affiliations where possible. I personally think it is better and more practical to join on to ongoing efforts and struggles that are contributing now to technoprogressive ends according to the criteria suggested by a program or perspective than it would be to attempt to create a mass-constituency or mobilize a mass-movement around any kind of explicit shared belief in the terms of a program or perspective.

Tuesday, August 30, 2005


Sorry for the diminished discursive stream after weeks of (relative) torrent: I'm prepping for the two fall term courses I'm teaching at SFAI and which begin Thursday this week, and also trying to keep an eye on the fledgling and adorable technoliberation list (join if you're a technocentric lover of democracy by clicking the button on the blogroll to the left), trying to whomp up a bit of enthusiasm here and there to get things off on the best foot. Also, I admit to losing myself a wee bit in the Kitten War. Right now, people are drowning in New Orleans because of Republican incompetence and greed, people are bleeding to death in Iraq because of Republican lies. I do have a couple of essaylets in my brain straining for release, plus I need to blog the last few sections of my diss still -- so new material will be arriving soon. For now, I just want to hide under the covers.

Sunday, August 28, 2005

Today's Random Wilde

Musical people always want one to be perfectly dumb at the very moment when one is longing to be perfectly deaf.

Technoliberation Update

Well, it's been a week since I posted here to say that a technoprogressive list had been created called "technoliberation."

Since then, the list has attracted more than two dozen new members, and the list has already seen well over a hundred posts. There is a fledgling technoliberation wiki to collaborate in, and there is a wonderfully diverse and provocative resource library of online texts on technoprogressive topics to dive into for inspiration and conversational fodder. Plans for an online bookclub and technoprogressive talking points compendium/frame-shop are afoot as well.

In an early post to the list I offered up this little prayer for the newly-hatched technoliberation list:
Here's how I personally hope the technoliberation list will differ from some others on offer: [one] technoliberation will be the list where technocentrics are not afraid to say libertarians and retro-futurist conservatives are sociopaths and recommend they move on when they want to start squawking here, [two] it will be the list where there is no expectation that a technoprogressive will automatically be considered a "transhumanist," [three] a list where we will conjoin discussion of the politics of morphological freedom, discussion of copyfight/p2p, discussion of global rights and sustainable development, discussion of antiracist, antisexist, antiheterosexist pro-science politics, rather than focusing on just one of these, and [four] a list where our commitment to diversity means we will actively outreach to women, people of color, non-Americans, and people of all age-groups until our community actually reflects that commitment.

Well, outreach starts at home, and so, ye manifold Mundyites out there in the cyberspatial sprawl, answer my prayer.... by joining the technoliberation list, joining in on the conversation there and otherwise contributing to the aborning community if this sounds like a congenial concatenation of folks and issues to you! Note the very handy button that takes you there at the top of my blogroll to your left.

Here's some of the text (to which I am happy to say I contributed) on the front page of the wiki, another nice evocation of the whole technoliberationist vibe that's afoot thereabouts I think Mundyites might take a shine to:
Technoliberation is a rainbow coalition that extends beyond the visible spectrum. Our participants belong to different communities, work on different problems, bring different histories, temperaments, and hopes to the work we share, emphasize different pieces of the technoprogressive puzzle. We are gathered together to trade ideas, tell stories, make plans, mobilize efforts, identify threats, facilitate progressive developmental outcomes, and share our differences.

Many of us are post-naturalist Greens and champions of sustainable development. Many of us are secular humanists and post-humanist humanitarians. Many of us are pro-choice feminists and morphological freedom fighters, defending consensual personal genetic, prosthetic, and cognitive practices of self-creation. Many of us are atheists, aesthetes, and nonjudgmental people of many faiths and spiritual practices. Many of us are transgendered, queer theorists, biopunks, democratic transhumanists, and psychedelic experimentalists. Many of us are copyfighters, defenders of the creative and genomic commons, enthusiasts of social software tools, free software, open source, peer-to-peer democracy. Many of us are policy wonks, technocrats, world federalists, human rights activists, election reformers, advocates of basic income guarantees and universal health care, leapfroggers, and space enthusiasts. Many of us are champions of consensus science, of genetic science and evolutionary theory, but none of us are genetic determinists or Social Darwinists. None of us are all of these things, of course, but many of us are many of them, and we are all of us inspired and provoked by the connections we find among these struggles and celebrations.

Bioconservatives, market libertarians, religious fundamentalists, and retro-futurists are not welcome among us. There are plenty of places online and off where we can argue with you, just as there are plenty of occasions to contemplate the real-world consequences of your ideas and values. Technoliberation is not the place for you. Feel free to listen and lurk and learn, but pick your fights with us elsewhere. This is a safe space for technoprogressives of all kinds and commitments.

We are focused here on the extraordinary threats and promises of ongoing and upcoming technological transformations of what has come to be thought of as the human condition. We are all champions of democracy here and we are all progressives. We are technoprogressives and we demand nothing short of Technoliberation!

Saturday, August 27, 2005

Politics of the Urban Archipelago

One of my earliest posts to Amor Mundi way back when complained that there are in fact no “Flyover States,” but only “Flyover Counties” in America:
[P]rogressives are not confined to the coasts but are interspersed throughout the country. And wherever the progressives are one notices that there are the cities where Americans live, there are the Universities where the future is made, there are the thriving centers of commerce that drive the prosperity of the entire nation. [A] county by county map [of party identification] does not show a conservative nation lorded over by elite coastal enclaves, it shows a modern urban cosmopolitan civilization whose politics have been hijacked by the feudal agenda of scattered small-minded mean-spirited hayseeds stuck in the nineteenth century and pining after the End of Days.

I just stumbled upon on a righteously snarky essay from a few months back called The Urban Archipelago that makes this case much more interestingly and entertainingly than I did myself. As I said, it's a few months old, and so most of you may have seen it already, but I missed it somehow and recommend everybody look it over.

Perhaps it is an effect of the post-election siege mentality that prevailed when the article was written, when literally every American with a brain went into that dreadful disgusted Decline and Fall frame of mind as they wistfully pondered the promising skylines nearby... But whatever the cause I would complain that there is a curious and finally unhelpful insularity in many of the essay’s actual policy recommendations. Sometimes the essay seems to imply that environmental degradation beyond city limits won’t come to batter the walls of the city itself in Greenhouse gales, though it will, that gun-nut accumulations of arms out in the Styx won’t find their way to city streets, though they will, that Wal-Martization among the hicks won’t ineluctably derange the economy of urbane sensible citizens as well, though it does.

But I think that the essay diagnoses the progressive landscape very much as it really is, and that its proximate focus on cities is exactly the right one for progressives. I think such a focus on the urban archipelago provides a better lens through which to comprehend even the strategic implications for progressives in the urban/rural interdependencies the essay itself mistakenly rather trivializes. An unswerving focus on progressive urban needs rather than a focus on the hardships of snakehandling premodern bigots who just keep begging to get screwed over by priestly and moneyed elites who disdain them and who relentlessly attack the very ones who try to help them seems by far the better way to go from here on out. Premodern Red-County Hate Mongers are grown-ups even if they are atavisms. We should let them live with the choices they clearly want to make, and make them pay for those stupid choices themselves while we protect ourselves as best we can from the consequences of their stupidity. It's the properly respectful thing to do.

John Nichol’s more recent article in the Nation, also entitled The Urban Archipelago documents what such a focus is looking like on the ground, and provides a more helpful sense of the way forward from here that is less dismissive of the nuances (but also much less funny than the earlier essay). Read them both.

Today's Random Wilde

It is absurd to say that the age of miracles is past. It has not yet begun.

Friday, August 26, 2005

Does Science Inform Ethics?

The ever-fabulous Robin Zebrowski asks an oldie-but-goodie over on her blog Hyper-Textual Ontology: "Does Science Inform Ethics?"

Actually, she loads it a bit by asking the question in the form, "How can science have no role to play in ethics?" but still, it's a good question to ponder.

Since I champion scientific inquiry not only as a pragmatically empowering practice but as a morally appealing one (see "Is Science Democratic?") this is a question that pushes warm-fuzzy buttons of mine. And since I abhor the ways in which some racists, misogynists, reductionists, elitists, and authoritarians will sometimes stealth in the form of what they call "apolitically scientific" or "consequentialist" statements what amount in fact to appallingly immoral statements that would otherwise get them rightly marginalized in a heartbeat this is a question that also pushes urge-to-kill-rising buttons of mine.

Here is my bland initial offering on the question:
Science cannot tell us what to value, but is usually indispensable in telling us how best to go about getting what we value. So, of course science "informs" ethics, just as ethical prejudices are likely to "inform" scientific inquiry by directing our attention certain places rather than others.

All the branches of philosophy reverberate into one another -- inquiry, morals, ethics, esthetics, politics -- but we still distinguish them and the modes of belief they differently warrant for good reasons. It is of course always possible and often tempting to reduce or rewrite one branch of philosophy (or even all of them) into the terms of another of its branches -- but this is never as simplifying, illuminating, or worthwhile a project over the long term as it initially seemed it would be.

The Latest Dispatch from the Reductionist Clown College

Genetic reductionists across the blogosphere have pointed to this BBC story reporting on "[a] study to be published later this year in the British Journal of Psychology [that] says that men are on average five points ahead on IQ tests. Paul Irwing and Professor Richard Lynn claim the difference grows when the highest IQ levels are considered." Somewhat less widely reported so far are other claims by this selfsame Richard Lynn, among them this suave eugenicist gem [via Atrios, originally via FAIR]:
What is called for here is not genocide, the killing off of the population of incompetent cultures. But we do need to think realistically in terms of the 'phasing out' of such peoples.... Evolutionary progress means the extinction of the less competent. To think otherwise is mere sentimentality.

Who can doubt that the Caucasoids and the Mongoloids are the only two races that have made any significant contributions to civilization?

Ugh! Champions of consensus science in general, and of genetic science and evolutionary theory in particular, already have our hands full defending against the assaults of both religious fundamentalists and the priestly elites they serve whose customs and parochial privileges are threatened by the destabilizing novelty arising from scientific inquiry into the environment and the consequent technological transformation of customary human capacities, as well as market fundamentalists and the moneyed elites they serve whose short-term profits are threatened by scientific inquiry into complex and longer-term impacts of some of their products and conduct on human lives.

But even in the midst of our distress at these fundamentalist assaults, even as we cast about in search of allies to defend secular civilization it is important to remember that advocates of scientistic reductionisms, racist and misogynist genetic determinisms, and retro-futurist Social Darwinist fallacies are peddling pernicious pseudo-science no less than are astrologers, proponents of "intelligent design" Christian creationism, climate-change deniers, industry-funded "safe-cigarette" researchers, faith-healers, and flim-flam telephone psychics.

The Richard Lynns of the world need to be told in no uncertain terms that genocide is never "progressive," that scientific civilization liberates us from evolutionary processes "red in tooth and claw," that truly technoprogressive champions of scientific culture celebrate human diversity more than we do "reproductive fitness" and that we do not think that makes you more "realistic" than us.

With friends like the Reductionist Clown College, who needs enemies?

Thursday, August 25, 2005

Is Microfinance Losing Steam?

[via IPS] "The best years of microfinance may be over," wrote Sanjay Suri in a troubling article just yesterday. I've long been a fan of microfinance, but fear now that I have had something of an absurdly "one-size-fits-all" version of the model in mind. Follow the link to read the whole piece, but here is a taste:
The United Nations has declared 2005 the International Year of Microcredit. But the UN push may not be moving donors and lending institutions sufficiently, [said] Kate Bird from the Overseas Development Institute (ODI).

[Bird comments] that ''[t]he development world is full of fashions, and this particular thing is now somehow out of fashion...'' [Microfinance] peaked around 2000, said Bird, who was earlier with the School of Public Policy at Birmingham University. ''I think in the late 90's microfinance seemed very exciting, all the donors were very keen to get into microfinance projects. But the donors and others expected too much from microfinance and then associated it very strongly with poverty reduction...''

''There was a lack of awareness that the poorest individuals do not benefit from microfinance,'' she said. ''You need to have sufficient assets to be able to use the microcredit that you receive. Very poor people present a greater risk, and also if a very poor household gets in arrears with loan repayments and begins to default, that is very bad for them. It means they are now worse off than they were before...'' The donors and others found that the poorest were either self-excluded from the microcredit scheme, and they were not signing up, or they found it a very uncomfortable experience, and did not sign up again. ''So donors found that credit is helping the less poor, people who are still poor but not the very poor.''

The Grameen model pioneered in Bangladesh has remained the most widely replicated, Bird said. This is a model where the loan is given to the group and the group is held responsible for repayment of the individual loan... The Grameen model works well in Bangladesh partly because Bangladesh has a high population density which reduces the cost of delivering credit, Bird said. ''In some sub-Saharan African countries the population densities are lower, and so markets do not function so well. It is also difficult for credit officers from microcredit institutions to visit those areas...''

NGOs have remained at the forefront of providing microfinance, Bird said. ''The private sector is not interested, particularly in providing microfinance in rural areas, so in the absence of the private sector the NGOs are the most appropriate,'' she said. ''Where governments tried to get involved in delivering microfinance there have been big problems with government officials becoming selective in who will get microfinance,'' she said. ''So government is not a good intermediary, the private sector is not commonly interested, which does not leave very much. So NGOs tend to become involved in microfinance.''

See also this brief piece which reports on comments by (hero!) Jeffrey Sachs on microfinance as one of the puzzle-pieces in the larger work of progressive global development.

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

The Random Wilde (Happy Birthday to Me Edition)

No woman should ever be quite accurate about her age. It looks so calculating.

(40, in case you're wondering.)

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Technophiles to the Left of Me, Technophiles to the Right

Promoted from the Comments, check out the whole discussion there.

Pace Arko wrote:
There are more progressives among the nerds of the last 30 years than the followers of Robert Heinlein or Jerry Pournelle would have you believe.

Name any science fiction writer of a right-wing stripe and I can name a better one who leans to the left. And we all know that one of the great grand daddies of science fiction, Herbert George Wells, was a Fabian Socialist through and through.

And I think I was there too -- back in those early days after Engines [of Creation] broke. I noticed visionary thinkers on the left that sat up and took notice just as soon as those on the right did. How can we forget Computer Scientists for Social Responsibility or the early days of the EFF or the Whole Earth Catalog?

Perhaps it just seems like the early advocates of this stuff were mostly anarcho-capitalist weirdos becuase those folks are more prone towards organized cultishness, something we on the other side of the aisle are rightly suspicious of.

There are a lot of interesting and encouraging observations packed in tight here. I quite agree with Pace about visionary left sf -- although I will admit to a perverse love of Heinlein despite the surreally awful opinions and attitudes he often espouses.

I also agree with him about CPSR, although I am a bit more ambivalent about the early days of EFF and Whole Earth. Don't get me wrong! I thought the folks at Whole Earth were the coolest cats in town -- for many of the same reasons I feel that way now about the folks who bring us WorldChanging today -- but I think there was a real libertopian streak in EFF that has somewhat but not yet entirely evanesced today, and a sort of left libertarian naivete that the Whole Earth mindset is likewise prone to. I don't know if you have read Cameron and Barbrook's essay "The California Ideology," but they nail the tendency on the head.

Certainly left libertarians should not be mistaken for venal market libertarians or retro-futurists of the Ayn Raelian type, but there is a certain Burning-Man-as-Spontaneous-Order vibe that too comfortably makes its home in the technophiliac left and that often amounts to a stealthy endorsement of the very same market mechanisms -- and in refusing to make an explicit argument for its market complacencies is sometimes even harder to combat for critical technoprogressives who know that what is necessary is to democratize the state, not smash it.

The left unquestionably learned such technophobia as it has now in the school of 20th Century Hard Knocks (examples Pace provides in his comment include "Minimata, Alamogordo, Bophal and the Holocaust"). I think and certainly I hope he is right to suggest that we on the technoprogressive left have found our way to some wisdom in the process.

As for the "optimism" of the technophiliac right wing free-marketeers and retro-futurists -- make no mistake! Their idea of optimism is indistinguishable from a predator salivating at the prospect of a meal. And not to put too fine a point on it, most of us appear to be in the lunch box.

Today's Random Wilde

It is what we fear that happens to us.

Monday, August 22, 2005

Conservative Dummies

"Conservatives are not necessarily stupid,” wrote John Stuart Mill, “but most stupid people are conservative." Quite so, but the conservative dummies to which I refer today in particular are more of the ventriloquist variety.

It is a matter of breathtaking scandal, of course, that neocon/theocon thugs will stifle and denigrate dissent in this democracy they claim to love (no doubt like a glutton loves his lunch). They dismiss with a scornful wave as “a mere interest group” the unprecedented millions of antiwar activists who rightly protested Bush’s disastrous war of choice before it even occurred. They refuse to let progressives attend the town hall meetings where the President who works for them betrays them with his every word. They delete comments and trackbacks that would criticize the crazy monologue of their online discourse. They invite few dissenting expert voices to the broadcast media outlets (many of them literally corporate conglomerations of media and militarism) where vital issues are discussed and explained in public. They cloak their bloodsoaked budgets and their bloodthirsty plans in unprecedented secrecy.

But for me it is an even more breathtaking scandal the way these neocon/theocon thugs will commandeer the voices of the voiceless even as they choke the voices of living dissent into silence.

For the current debased deranged crop of conservatives, every fetus and every person in a vegetative state is conscripted into servicing the Republican noise machine, reduced to a helpless foot soldier tirelessly advocating Republican talking points. Every single liberal and progressive victim of the attacks of September 11 in the progressive bastion of New York that social conservatives otherwise disdain with venomous vigor is transfigured in death and in silence into a megaphone declaiming conservative pieties. It is not for the mothers of dead soldiers to say what it means when their children are torn from the world and from their arms for the lies of this Administration.

The Republicans alone can speak for the dead, it seems. And it is only for death-dealing that the Republicans appropriate the voices of those who cannot protect themselves from these unspeakable depredations.

There can be little doubt that for the neocons and theocons every fetus, every person in a vegetative state, every victim of violence in the whirlwind blowback of Anti-American hostility around the world, every soldier dying for lies on a foreign field is little more than a ventriloquist’s dummy, with a Republican hand there to make the silent lips mouth the cheerleading words that fewer and fewer among the living are willing to speak now as bodies and deficits catastrophically balloon before our horrified eyes.

It’s a wonder the conservatives haven’t taken up the cause of animal rights. I hear that nine out of ten nonhuman mammals support Bush’s Presidency according to the latest RNC polling, even if few of the human ones still do.

Moog, Salute

[via the BBC]
Synthesiser pioneer Dr Robert Moog has died at his North Carolina home aged 71...

Born in the New York district of Queens, his instruments were used by The Beatles and The Doors among others.

Dr Moog built his first electronic instrument - a theremin - aged 14 and made the MiniMoog, "the first compact, easy-to-use synthesiser", in 1970.... [but i]t was Wendy Carlos' 1968 Grammy award-winning album, Switched-On Bach, which brought Dr Moog to prominence....

Before long many musicians and groups, including the Doors, the Grateful Dead, the Rolling Stones and the Beatles, were using Moog synthesisers.

Dr Moog remained a respected musical figure and in recent years many musicians, including Brian Eno, Frank Zappa, The Cure, Fatboy Slim and Stereolab kept the sound alive, even as analogue synthesisers were superseded by digital instruments.

"The sound defined progressive music as we know it," said Keith Emerson of Emerson, Lake and Palmer.

In 2004, the first Moogfest was organised in New York, celebrating Dr Moog's achievements.

Organiser Charles Carlini said: "He brought electronic music to the masses and changed the way we hear music."


Sunday, August 21, 2005

Today's Random Wilde

The artist should never try to be popular. Rather the public should be more artistic.

Saturday, August 20, 2005

The New Technoliberation List

A new discussion list was created last night, and I would encourage any sympathetic readers of Amor Mundi to join and participate there. There are just a dozen messages in the archive and half a dozen members, so you have a chance to get in on the ground floor and shape the default culture of the list in insistently technoprogressive directions. Here is the text I have offered up for the Home Page, but which the members have not yet agreed to. Come what may, it reflects what I see as the promise of the list.

Using technology to deepen democracy, using democracy to ensure technology benefits us all.

The technoliberation list is a welcoming space for conversation, collaboration, organization, and debate among liberal, social, and radical democrats from around the world all of whom share the sense that emerging, converging, disruptive global technological developments threaten unprecedented harm while they promise unprecedented emancipation for humanity. We want to think about the ways in which technology provokes us to rethink and reimagine the left wing of the possible.


It is not true that the map of freedom will be complete
with the erasure of the last invidious border
when it remains for us to chart the attractors of thunder
and delineate the arrhythmias of drought
to reveal the molecular dialects of forest and savanna
as rich as a thousand human tongues
and to comprehend the deepest history of our passions
ancient beyond mythology's reach

So I declare that no corporation holds a monopoly on numbers
no patent can encompass zero and one
no nation has sovereignty over adenine and guanine
no empire rules the quantum waves

And there must be room for all at the celebration of understanding
for there is a truth which cannot be bought or sold
imposed by force, resisted
or escaped.

-- Greg Egan

C'mon Mundyites, let's create an actual cyborg feminist, post-natural Green, post-humanist humanitarian, prostheticized queer, morphological freedom fighting, global fair trade and sustainable development advocating, democratic world federalist technoprogressive salon and incitement to activism and organizing!

Join at:

Friday, August 19, 2005

Today's Random Wilde

Art is not to be taught in Academies. It is what one looks at, not what one listens to, that makes the artist. The real schools should be the streets.

Without God

Doc Logic points out that "to exist" is to be "susceptible of observation," and that since god in most construals is unobservable by definition, then both the commonplace claims that god exists or doesn't are nonsensical.

In light of this observation I find it interesting that the term "atheist" is widely defined as precisely the claim he rightly worries is a nonsensical one -- namely, a denial of the existence of (a) god. But etymologically, of course, "atheist" is simply a- theist, "without god."

I think of myself as atheist, but I mean by the term little more than to point out that I do without god in my own life.

Of course the "nonsensical" character of these claims that have exercised Doc Logic's notice are perfectly characteristic of all manner of theological discourse -- and its adherents are as likely to say so as its detractors. To say "god exists" (or not) always seems to really mean something on the order of "god exists, but in a way of existing that isn't like the way common or garden variety things exist otherwise at all but which I'll call existing nonetheless."

See how this gesture is re-enacted among other places in the descriptive omni-predicates by means of which god is presumably articulated for fallen earthbound-types: Omniscience, or a knowing that in being all-knowing isn't like any knowing we know of -- Omnipotence, or power that in being all powerful squares with no phenomenological experience of power available to us -- Omnibenevolence, or a good that calls good things that by any standard are not at all good -- but which somehow are kinds of knowing, power, or goodness after all.

Or, heck, no need to get fancy, it's like the quintessential analogical grappling of a kid hankering after a grasp on godhood who decides god is an old man with a long grey beard in a big stone chair, only, you know, god, so I guess not so much like any old man who has ever existed after all...

Theological discourse is catachretic, there are always only disanalogies at its disposal...

I quite understand that this opens the door for some for some powerful personal practices of creativity and meaning-making.

But for me, if it's all the same to you, I do plenty fine without god: Atheist.

Market Madness

Although they usually cut to the chase and just bark about what a jackbooted thug I am deep down in my dark socialist heart, I am also used to getting dressed down at greater length for my "economic illiteracy" by the better sort of marginally more thoughtful market fundamentalist types, all of whom have lots of pie-charts to show why all their libertopian dreams will someday come true even if they haven't got much else on offer.

But I have to admit that I was a bit surprised earlier today to hear from a colleague on the left that I am myself little more than a debased market-sympathizer who should be right ashamed of himself for it. Here is the gist of the complaint, condensed from a few rounds of conversation, with my feeble efforts at a reply appended thereafter:
I am disappointed that you, [and] others are actually marketeers of a different sort, less odious to be sure -- while admitting that markets don't work as advertised, [you're] certainly not on the avant-garde of post-market thinking, of what information they even in theory fail to transmit, info which would we agree is important, but taking the market as a desirable given nonetheless... it's rather sad.

[Y]ou and James [Hughes] advocate for market socialism, or social democracy, or some variation of the european market model that has shown itself unable to sustain in the face of the pernicious market effects I mention above, because it relies on those same signals. And I advocate someting quite different.

Let me begin by pointing out that I don't really think of "the market" as desirable or undesirable, because I just don't believe "the market" exists in the sense my interlocutor seems to mean here.

A number of contingent historical arrangements get called "the market," some of which I might find more congenial than others, but none of which functions in a way that swings free of the regulatory effects of social norms, laws backed by force, or architectural constraints.

It is true that I recognize "market signals" of supply and demand under conditions of imperfect knowledge and unequal distribution as comparably indispensable sources of regulatory effects as such norms, laws, and the rest, but it is hard to see why this is any more problematic than taking account of changing weather conditions in modeling social life.

Market fundamentalist ideologies of the neoliberal, neoconservative, and market libertarian varieties, on the other hand, weight market signals unduly, privilege market signals over all other regulators, or indulge in eliminative fantasies in which market signals replace most or all other regulatory forces altogether. These facile and pernicious market fundamentalist ideologies typically conjoin with an equally facile and pernicious market naturalist ideology that likewise treats "the market" as a spontaneous order or as the expression of deep tidal forces inhering in or upwelling out of "nature" in an ahistorical fashion indifferent to social norms, implemented laws, contingent but stubborn architectural constraints, and such.

It is hard to see how I could be mistaken as advocating either market fundamentalist or market naturalist ideologies, and it is even harder to see how James Hughes could be so accused, in my opinion. But come what may I do concede that prices -- like words or like numbers -- have regularly demonstrated themselves to be useful tools when used within their proper limits.

I would no more identify the contemporary European Union with "the market" than the contemporary United States with "the market" in the general archetypal way this critique seem to depend on, either on the way to championing or vilifying "it" or them. These are different implementations differently sensitive to and differently provocative of market signals with both of which implementations I have plenty of complaints. But none of this makes me think I cannot make recourse to social analyses that talk, for example, of functional specialization, division of labor, or pricing signals without buttressing up what passes for "the market" in some neoliberal or neoconservative apologias for whatever unjust prevailing institutional arrangements the elites with which they identify have a taste for at the moment.

I'm a social democrat but also a democratic experimentalist -- which is to say I value certain things in a social order (among them, fairness, freedom, human rights, equality, diversity, representation, accountability, and legitimate nonviolent recourse in disputes) but that I think there are probably indefinitely many institutional arrangements that might satisfy these values or facilitate their implementation.

I can tell you where I want to go, but when it comes to blueprints I prefer that they emerge in real-time, peer-to-peer.

Thursday, August 18, 2005

Today's Random Wilde

The advantage of the emotions is that they lead us astray, and the advantage of science is that it is not emotional.

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Listen, Transhumanist!

My close friend and ally, the socialist-feminist technoprogressive bioethicist James Hughes recently published a marvellous book, Citizen Cyborg: Why Democratic Societies Must Respond to the Redesigned Human of the Future. An abbreviated version of the technoprogressive program he advocates at the close of his book contains the following recommendations, among others:
"2.1 Defend the rights of all human beings oppressed because of their bodies

2.1a Support rights for great apes, dolphins and whales
2.1b Guarantee the right of all persons to control our own bodies and minds

We need not only a broader concept of the citizen, the bearers of rights, but also a more radical understanding of the rights those citizens can claim. Self-ownership should include the right of sane adults to change and enhance their bodies and brains, to own their own genes, to take recreational drugs, and to control their own deaths. Procreative liberty, an extension of the right to control our body and life, should include the right to use germinal choice technologies to ensure the best possible life [one must add: on terms arising out of a scene of informed, nonduressed decision, rather than on terms imposed by elites in the name of some parochial conception of "optimality" --ndc] for our children. Strong democratic government is required not only to protect these rights, but to ensure that the technologies are tested for safety, and that consumers understand their risks and benefits. We need to ensure all citizens have access to these options, not just the affluent....

3.1 Support science education and federal research into transhuman technologies

3.2 Promote rigorous, independent safety testing of [emerging -- ndc] technologies, rejecting both free-market laissez-faire and Luddite bans.... International agencies should be empowered to enforce global regulations on the safety of industrial and medical technologies. The U.S. Congress should re-establish the Office of Technology Assessment, and the size and mandate of the EPA and FDA should be expanded to rapidly vet the safety of new industrial materials, drugs and medical devices.... [one must add: we should facilitate the democratization of this deliberative development by using peer-to-peer (p2p) architectures to implement citizen juries and impact assessments as well as access to knowledge (a2k) mandates to abolish secrets of state and proprietary secrets that distort the scene of informed, nonduressed consent in matters of technoscientific oversight -- ndc]

3.3 Protect genetic self-ownership, and the genetic and intellectual commons from patent madness....

4.1 Build and defend universal health systems with choices....

4.2 Establish a guaranteed basic income and expand the social wage....

5.1 We need global agreements not just to expand "free trade," but also to protect worker rights and set environmental and safety standards for agriculture, industry and medicine. The United Nations needs the authority to tax corporations and nations, and the power to collect those taxes. We need to add a second chamber to the United Nations that represents the world on a population basis, not just as nation-states. We need a permanent, standing international army with a clear mandate to enforce world law, starting with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and reform the UN Security Council to make it a more legitimate body for governing world force.

5.2 We need to strengthen the capacity of the World Health Organization and the United Nations Development Program to disseminate new technologies to the developing world. Agencies in the developed world should expand research into technologies appropriate to the needs of the developing world, and support programs of technology transfer to the developing world. International institutions such as WHO, FAO, UNCTAD, UNDP, and UNESCO [I would add: the ILO -- ndc] should be expanded to support technological diffusion in the developing world....

5.3 The world needs international bodies like the International Atomic Energy Agency to be expanded into a global infrastructure of technological and industrial regulation capable of controlling the health and environmental risks from new technologies. We need to expand programs like the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the British and American programs monitoring near earth objects into global programs to monitor the health of ecosystem and the threat from asteroids.

There is quite a lot to chew on there, of course (and there is still much more to say about peer-to-peer media formations, strengthening commons formations, facilitating renewable energy and decentralizing basic infrastructure), and I strongly recommend that any readers of Amor Mundi who have not yet done so go out right now and scoop up James's book.

Although I have a few wee quibbles about terminology and formulations and would supplement or differently emphasize some of his recommendations (some suggestions about this appear parenthetically) the fact is I find it very easy to endorse his program, both in its specifics and its spirit. I think it is very important for technoprogressives to think as Hughes does of the ways these different recommendations relate to and depend on one another, and on the ways emerging and disruptive technological developments must change how progressives talk about our values in general.

Radical and social democrats and democratic socialists and others of the democratic left must emphasize what is newly possible, newly dangerous, newly destabilizing in ongoing technodevelopmental social struggle. We must re-think what consent, equity, diversity, fairness, safety, and freedom might come to mean in the ongoing flow of radical technoscientific churn.

But you may have noticed that the program I have quoted here begins with agenda item number [2.0]. Before I quote Hughes's own [1.0], which I have omitted so far, let me say first that I have described James Hughes as a "socialist-feminist technoprogressive bioethicist," but that this is not how James describes himself. This is not to say that James would take umbrage at my characterization of him, particularly, but just that this isn't his own self-description. What James thinks of himself as first of all is what he calls a "democratic transhumanist."

Now, since I think of James as something of a kindred spirit and a very close ally I find it congenial to describe him as technoprogressive because I think of myself that way. But it causes me great discomfort and annoyance to describe him as a "democratic transhumanist" because I wouldn't describe myself in those terms in a million years.

That said, here is the Item of James Hughes' program that I have not yet quoted:
1.0 Build the Transhumanist Movement

We need transhumanist think tanks, journals, conferences and lobbyists. We need transhumanists meeting the bioLuddites toe-to-toe in the public square, defending the rights of persons to use reason to control their own affairs. We need transhumanist clubs and study groups on the campuses, and in every city in every country, educating the public about the threats and promises to come. We need a movement fighting for a positive future, and not just fighting the future.

I imagine it goes without saying, but I will say anyway that this is not a part of James's program I can endorse personally. Honestly, I cannot say I even understand it, entirely. Certainly it is hard for me to connect this Item of his program to the urgency of the Items that follow it, nor can I quite get a handle on how it is supposed to make much of a contribution to the work that would facilitate the other Items.

Now, "transhumanists" are technophiles who entertain some wonderfully off-the-wall notions about emerging and projected technologies. In the years since I first read about them I have regularly found that some of the speculations that seemed the most off-the-wall in "transhumanist" conversation ended up migrating in breathtakingly short order to the front pages of mainstream newspapers and scientific journals as very proximate real-world concerns. It is hard not to feel real fondness for "transhumanists" for their knack for this sort of thing.

I've always been attracted to the vitality of marginal intellectual movements like that of the "transhumanists" -- sex radicals, vegans, pacifists, zerowork advocates, militant atheists and the like. Intellectual edge-cities like these are a spur to my own thinking, a check on complacency and orthodoxy, a source of real pleasure, inspiration, provocation, and an endless archive of unexpected insights and perceptions. And as a life-long geek and sf enthusiast the "transhumanists" appeal to many facets of my personality even while many of them have always jarred violently against other facets just as deeply.

I discovered the "transhumanists" (or at any rate some of them) about fifteen years ago, while I was writing my Master's Thesis in Georgia on connections between queer theory and technocultural theory. I have long observed many of the strands of and strains within "transhumanist" discourse since then. I have pondered them with ethnographic fascination, and sometimes with something of a psychotherapist's eye (it is very hard to resist this at times). I have regularly sparred with "transhumanists," especially on a vast range of political questions.

What follows is adapted from something of an open letter I recently posted in an online "transhumanist" forum, on the subject of "movement transhumanism" and the "democratic transhumanism" of its most reasonable variation:

To James Hughes and the other "democratic transhumanists," to my CybDemite colleagues, allies, and friends, and to other presumably "transhumanist"-identified or "transhumanist"-sympathetic technocentrics, technocritics, technoethicists, technophiles and technowhosits here assembled: Listen up!

It seems to me that there is never more than a modest portion of the people who are actually "transhumanist"-identified who actually agree with James Hughes's reasonable published program of "Democratic Transhumanism," especially as a programmatic whole or in the actual sense he intends these recommendations. No doubt some "transhumanist"-types might genuflect in the direction of some of the Items in it, but most will mean in "endorsing" them quite different things than Hughes does himself.

Bring most of Hughes' programmatic Items up in actual "transhumanist"-fora and, as night follows day, the libertopian noise brigade will start barking and whining about Socialists Among Us! Next up, a host of self-described "apolitical" types who will quiescently purr while the most outrageous market fundamentalist pieties and genetic determinist apologias for bigotry are disgorged will then suddenly rise to their feet and pout and stamp about how the "socialists" (by which term they seem to denote anybody to the left of or including the neoliberal free-marketeer Bill Clinton) are perniciously "politicizing" their forum.

Even more crucial than the fact that few actual "transhumanist"-identified people would endorse Hughes's "transhumanist" program is the fact that an incomparably smaller fraction of the people actively participating in the various actually-existing movements to implement versions of Items [2.0 through 5.3] of his program are "transhumanist"-identified themselves or even would -- be honest! -- so identify if anybody made that option available and clear to them.

This is more than a terminological problem. The terminological trouble testifies to deeper conceptual confusions, demographic realities, and poisonous historical legacies.

Do you know what I'm talking about here, "democratic transhumanists" out there? Am I wrong about this? I keep looking and looking but I fear I'm plenty reality-based enough to worry that the numbers just don't seem to add up for a workable consistently unrepentent technoprogressive "transhumanist" caucus, especially so long as "democratic transhumanists" endlessly have to deliver handjobs to the free marketeers and reductionists among them to get anything done at all.

This is nothing against James Hughes himself -- or at least I hate the thought that he would take it that way. As I have often said and will continue to say, I agree with James Hughes on any number of issues. He is right-on with his right-on. And I love the ragtag fugitive fleet of CybDemites and DemTrans types he has gathered together largely by the sweat of his brow...

But I have to wonder just why do libertarians and free-marketeers end up cropping up even in the modest scattered spaces that get built to provide progressive "transhumanish" alternatives to them? Why do retro-futurists and neoconmen end up getting treated as respectable intellectuals in even these more progressive salons where everybody presumably knows better?

Given the conceptual and demographic realities that appear to be in play (and canoodling around with "transhumanist" organizational membership surveys that split market fundamentalists into libertarians, conservatives, upwingers, and the rest doesn't eliminate the underlying reality of right-wing ideological commonalities that conjoin them), most of what it will actually mean to try to implement Hughes's programmatic Item [1.0] on the ground is that:

(One) Any relatively reasonable liberal, moderate, social, and radical democratic technology critics and advocates who actually find their way to and long remain among the "transhumanists" will have to patiently pretend the market libertarians and retro-futurist neoconservatives among them aren't really clueless marauding sociopaths even though we know that they are.

(Two) These democrats will provide the thugs and dupes a respectability among our own academic and activist allies they could never acquire for themselves in a million years.

(Three) The democrats will endlessly dilute their own critiiques and recommendations for the sake of the free marketeers and reductionists even though the democrats know full well there isn't really time for shilly-shallying given the mad-urgency of the issues we are addressing, eg, climate-change, world poverty and malnutrition, imperiled reproductive freedom, digital surveillance, intellectual property regimes, weapons proliferation, etc.

(Four) Democrats will endlessly squander their time explaining political basics to the libertopians (eg, "free trade" is a slogan not a law of nature, since the state is indispensable justice demands that it be democratized not smashed, taxes aren't the same thing as slavery, the US is not a market but a planned economy that stealths its planning under the heading of defense spending and is a welfare state providing welfare mostly for the already rich, etc. etc. etc.) all the while working themselves into incomprehensible explanatory knots to avoid offending wingnuts even when the democrats are making the most manifestly reasonable and obvious sorts of recommendations imaginable.

(Five) Democrats will alienate most sensible allies who have to wonder just why anybody would waste their time with a clatch of clueless smug know-nothing techie-boys who want to bring back the McKinley Adminsitration but this time, you know, with robots so they might have some small chance of actually getting laid occasionally, and

(Six) Democrats will inevitably blunt their own political instincts and best insights through their ongoing association with these reactionaries.

Here's an easy-to-remember rule for technoprogressives whose standards have been scrambled and ears have been tinned by overlong association with technophiliac free-marketeers: No panel or committee with more than one market libertarian or neoliberal/neoconservative market fundamentalist on it for every four members on it in total will reflect anything but the most irrelevantly parochial perspective imaginable for a task force that would address its recommendations to the world beyond American technophilia. You'll have to pay close attention in making these determinations, since many free marketeers won't actually admit to their market fundamentalism in mixed company. You will actually have to read what they say before you decide they belong on your panel, or editorial board, or task force. I know that's a lot to ask....

Look, techno-progressive sensibilities in the "transhumanist movement" have Stockholm Syndrome.

There is an undeniable widespread technophobia across the political and cultural left that has been inspired, reasonably enough, by the real and relentless corporatism, militarism, harmful health-hyping, and environmental catastrophe with which technological development has come to be freighted the long twentieth century through. This has made it quite difficult to make the traditional revolutionary left case for the emancipatory power of science and technology.

In the 80s and 90s it seemed that only a few sf geeks and socially alienated types took things like space elevators, rejuvination medicine and replicative nanoscale technology seriously.

I know. I was there.

Finding a person who even knew what these things were practically ensured you were talking to someone who thinks Ayn Rand is a serious writer. (Newsflash: She isn't. She is instead a manifestly, terminally, howlingly, embarrasingly, in fact earthshatteringly bad writer. Please make a note of it.)

All this was, you know, just a terrible historical accident. It was a specific conjunction of disaffected temperaments, fatally exacerbated by the irrational exuberance of the era, when WIRED-culture embraced libertopia and extropia and momentarily made it look like short-sighted stupidity conjoined with uncritical technophilia and bottomless brainless greed might manage for once to build a house worth living in. (Newsflash: It didn't. And it never will. Please make a note of it.)

Technoprogressive sensibilities lurking and making-do among the "transhumanists" can put all of that behind them now. You really can, people.

The digital, biomedical, nanoscale developments you've been worried about and planning for and trying to explain to your well-meaning but wrongheaded uncritically technophobic peers are now so proximate that everybody is talking about them now. Many people are making the connections that have long enthralled lefty technocentrics and sent them into the cold comfort of the bomb builders, statisticians, and market ideologues of libertechian "transhumanism."

These aborning conversations appear largely to be bypassing the "transhumanists" altogether, except for occasionally using them as rhetorical straw men to torch.

And why wouldn't they?

So many among the "transhumanist"-identified were and remain market fundamentalists, facile genetic determinists, climate-change deniars, corporate-military apologists, boys-with-toys, parochial know-nothings. Due to the efforts of amazing people like James Hughes (whose theoretical work and tireless organizational efforts many Old School "transhumanists" heatedly bemoan and disdain, even as -- it seems to me -- he more or less single-handedly keeps their tired asses on the cultural radar-screen in the first place) "transhumanism" is in fact more than it once was, is more than I thought it could be, and has something more of a chance at making a positive mark on a future worth living in than I thought possible.

But I don't think it was worth it, and I don't think it is enough.

I want to talk about technology and development in places where there are lots of women around, where many languages are spoken, where there are Greens, and skeptics, and nonjudgmental people of faith, and perverts, and poets, and punks, and policy-wonks, and pacifists, and folks with small modest businesses they love, and veteran activists, and theory-heads. I like to be around people who think of themselves as citizens of the world already. The left has no problem bringing scientists, atheists, activists, queers, witches, wonks, graphic artists, and drug-experimentalists together already. Progressives in "transhumanist" spaces are more welcome than ever before, but they are still endlessly careful and defensive. Why? Progressives invented progress, you know? Progress already defines us. There is just no reason to make nicey-nice with the libertopian libertechian sociopaths anymore.

Those "transhumanish"-types with more genial temperaments than my own will recoil at my bluntness. They will puzzle over my "negativity" as they hum blandly along into irrelevance or worse. They will scowl at my incivility in refusing to be civil with the uncivilized.

I'm sorry. I honestly am. I don't mean to be forever griping at and upsetting most the people who I actually like best among "transhumanist"-identified folks. But there are only so many obvious stumbles and disappointments I can take.

Too many of my disappointments are coming from the best among the "transhumanist"-identified people I know, while so many of my pleasant surprises are coming from academics and activists on the left who are growing more literate in and sympathetic to radical science and technology discourse, all without the endless garbage and oafishness of the "transhumanist" default culture.

The fact that I'm writing this down and not just walking out on you all given all these worries and complaints should tell you how committed I feel to my friendship with some among you....

So. Listen, "transhumanist":

Show me what I'm missing here. Show me how I'm wrong. Show me why "transhumanism" with all its pathologies and troubled legacies and weirdnesses really is the most fertile soil in which to plant the seeds that need planting, to organize and mobilize the energies that would implement Items [2.0-5.3] of Hughes's program. I agree with James that something like his program is precisely where we need to be going if emerging and ongoing disruptive technological development is to fulfill many of its emancipatory promises.

So, reassure me. You better believe if I need this reassurance then almost anybody else you'd want in your corner will need it, too. If you can't, cut bait and start again. I'm telling you, the world is changing. Different conversations, different coalitions are possible now.

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

(Nervous) Cackles from the Balcony

Eric has pointed me to this horrifying article in the Observer, and especially to this detail:
[O]fficers were given specific training on how to deal with suicide bombers... By studying footage of attacks and even interviewing failed bombers, senior Met officers drew up a list of 'precursor signals' that generally occur shortly before detonation of a device. Most have not been made public but include the potential bomber looking 'detached' from his or her surroundings and becoming introspective. In such situations new guidance suggested the officers shoot the suspect in the head rather than the torso as the latter would not stop a detonation and might even ignite the explosive.

Needless to say, Eric is not encouraged at the thought that police are being trained to shoot introspective commuters in the head no questions asked.

Technocentrism and Religious Faith

It seems to me that religious beliefs are compatible with scientific beliefs in exactly the same way as judgments of esthetic taste are so compatible.

Most people of religious faith and spiritual practice seem to me to be engaged in moral projects of identification/disidentification and esthetic projects of meaning-making/self-creation.

Warranted scientific beliefs give us greater powers of prediction and control in our environment and are defined not by faith but by defeasibility. Scientific belief yields neither moral nor esthetic satisfactions. Whenever champions of consensus science (of whom I am enthusiastically one myself) declare otherwise this is because they are appropriating scientific beliefs and practices for these ends in a way that is not itself scientific -- but which is compatible with science for exactly the same reasons that religious faith is likewise compatible with science within their proper bounds.

I am an atheist myself. I am an atheist for good reasons and I do not hesitate to say so for fear of "offending" some of the faithful by visibly existing. I cheerfully recommend atheism to everyone as a possible pathway to satisfaction and sanity.

But I do not think my atheism is more compatible than religion or spirituality with a celebration of the emancipatory promise of emerging technologies or with a practical advocacy for their progressive development.

Certainly I am appalled (as are many of the faithful) with the worldy use of religion by some social conservatives to shore up the power of elites, exacerbate the suffering of people they disapprove of, or undermine the verdicts of consensus science. But these issues are separable from the broader question of the compatibility of religious belief with scientific belief or technocentrism as such.

Whatever forms technocriticism takes (technoethics, technocultural theory, "transhumanism," academic posthumanisms, technocratic wonkery, technorealism, whatever) it doesn't look to me much like a consensus-scientific practice and so it is difficult to see why there would be so much of a stake in distinguishing technocriticism from religiosity in any absolute sense or definitive way.

On the contrary: To the extent that technocriticism is about the advocacy of particular developmental outcomes it would seem to me that the fact that vast majorities of actually existing people are variously religious taken together with the fact that their religiosity will often have to be taken into account both in effective policy and in effective formulations of recommendation would imply the opposite sort of conclusion; namely, that technocentrism should take pains to remain alive to religions as abiding forces in the world we share and will continue to share in whatever futures come to pass. Further, to the extent that technocriticism is an occasion for documenting or theorizing about the impact of technology on peoples' lives the fact that religious people are fully-real people and are impacted as much as anybody else by disruptive technological development and habitual prosthetic practices would likewise seem to imply the opposite sort of conclusion.

Monday, August 15, 2005

Today's Random Wilde

Each of the professions means a prejudice. The necessity for a career forces every one to take sides. We live in the age of the overworked, and the under-educated; the age in which people are so industrious that they become absolutely stupid.

Sunday, August 14, 2005

Saving My Bacon

I've been a cheerful vegetarian for twenty years now, and at this point the very thought of eating most meat actually wrinkles up my nose involuntarily in distaste... But I have to admit that to this day for some reason the smell of bacon frying in a skillet stands the hairs up on the back of my neck with lust and something like heartbreak.

So, when I read an article about the near-term prospect of meat grown in vats from a single animal cell "When Meat Is Not Murder," by Ian Sample in yesterday's UK Guardian my very first thought was... Ethical bacon? Sign me up!

Of course, the idea of "vat-grown" meat will have been a staple of science fiction for long decades before it manages finally to become a staple in everyday diets, if it ever does (with futurological crystal balls, it is good to remember that, in general, they always seem to foresee developments "twenty years from now," a twenty year horizon that curiously adjusts forward with the passage of present years). The notion of scaling up a single animal cell into a petri dish's worth of meat-mush and onward thence to a veritable mush-zeppelin of mystery meat with a fork in it ready to feed a hungry grateful world has been deliriously chewed over by futurologists mouthing off ever since I was a kid reading Omni Magazine, even as it never seems actually to arrive at the actual mouths actually chewing stage.

Among the delirious thought-experiments one stumbles onto now, in an era in which puppies can be made to glow in the dark and human ears sprout from the backs of mice, is that vat-grown bacon might not just be less offensive to the ethical allergies of vegetarians like me, but even gengineered to circumvent conventional allergies as well, not to mention, say, reduce the awful fat-content of natural varieties presently on offer or be infused like Froot Loops with who knows what sorts of lovely unexpected nutritional benefits besides?

As always, it is probably more sensible to remember, as futurologists themselves rarely manage to do, the distinctions between science fiction and science proper, and to treat the former as meditations on the hopes and anxieties and problems occasioned by the latter rather than some kind of predictive, policy-making, or promotional literature to which the latter is in any important sense indebted.

Now, I've been eating various veggie-burgers and tofu-pups on offer since the day I became a vegetarian, and I'll admit that for a while there neither the cost nor the taste of the products exactly thrilled me. But these days alternative quasi-sausage (quausage?) patties and veggie crumble and fungi-based non-soy chicken patties have me eating more meat-substitute than I ever ate of the real thing back when I ate it at all. Not only do all these products manage often enough to be delicious and reasonably cheap, but they tend to be rich in protein and have a fraction of the fat of the meats for which they presumably substitute. Maybe my memory of the originals is no longer exactly reliable, but my partner Eric isn't a vegetarian but even he prefers veggie corn-dogs, to the real ones...

Anyway, even if ethical vat-grown versions of sausage or beef or chicken were to arrive on the scene one day I wouldn't feel much of an itch myself to make the switch to them, for the lack of any reason to do so and because I like the nutritional profile of the substitutes already on offer. If the vat-grown versions also managed to improve the nutritional profile, though, I do want to emphasize that the ethical concerns that make me an ethical vegetarian now would inspire not a split-second's hesitation in this ethical vegetarian.

And frankly, even without nutritional tweaking I would leap at the chance to eat ethical bacon, if only occasionally. Nobody has quite figured out the veggie bacon thing yet, sad to say.

In the Guardian article linked above Kerry Bennett, a spokesperson for the Vegetarian Society points out that "this [development] has the potential to decrease the number of meat-producing animals in factory farms." One has to worry about taking futurological handwaving too seriously in the here-and-now so that it becomes a pretext for dismissing actually urgent problems requiring fraught political struggles in the present, fancying that techo-fixes promised by futurologists with their fingers permanently crossed will effortlessly sublime these struggles away in the immediate future, but it is easy to see why the prospect of meat-construction from insensitive cells rather than the present horror of meat-processing of sensitive animals might be foremost in the minds of ethical vegetarians and animal rights activists.

I do find it curious that despite her concession of these promising implications, Bennett goes on to emphasize instead that vat-grown meat "won't appeal to someone who gave up meat because they think it's morally wrong to eat flesh or someone who doesn't want to eat anything unnatural." If eating meat grown in a vat from a single cell of an animal (one who, in principle, would not even have to be killed to provide the cell) rather than from an actual corpse would still constitute an immoral consumption of flesh it is very difficult to see how eating seitan prepared to emulate flesh would not as well, not to mention things like wearing a wool sweater, or taking a non-digital photograph (all film contains gelatin), using most toothbrushes or anti-freeze, flipping through the pages of a leather-bound book, or the use of indefinitely many other commonplace objects that rarely attract the attention of any but the most ferociously committed activist vegans should not likewise inspire Bennett's disdain... Do they? And if not, why not?

As for the curious suggestion that vat-grown meat would not be "natural," one wonders if Bennett suspects that cell-cultures somehow constitute a supernatural procedure? I concede we're talking about futurological fancies, but we're talking cells here, people, not ectoplasm!

Certainly I agree with Bennett that there would be "a number of question marks regarding the origins of the cells and the method of harvesting," and that one would want a lot of study and regulation by legitimate accountable authorities (and you better believe I don't mean the companies themselves that stand to profit most from these developments offering us "every assurance" as to the health and safety of their profits, er, I mean, products). Even many of the most popular already-existing readily-available meat-substitute products mass marketed to vegetarians trouble me ethically when I contemplate their wasteful packaging, their sodium and preservative contents, the conditions of laborers working in the context of extractive-industrial-petrochemical factory farms and food processing and transportation systems.

If these products were ever actually to arrive on the scene (by no means an assured thing, whatever the apparent assurance of futurologists), approved by legitimate consensus science and their production and circulation regulated by legitimate accountable authorities it is difficult to see why another layer of concern about the "naturalness" or not of these products should enter into our speculations. I'm always mordantly amused by the "back to nature" types among the vegetarians I know. Most of these seem either blandly oblivious or even quite willfully to refuse to think too hard about what it means to live an "all natural" lifestyle made possible by faux-meat substitute foods, faux-fur and synthetic-material jackets, faux-leather shoes, and nutritional supplements. All culture is prosthetic, all ritual is artifice, including cultures devoted to the ritual disavowal of their artifactuality.

Scratch a vegetarian, find a cyborg.

Saturday, August 13, 2005

Friday, August 12, 2005

End of Term

Sorry for the low posting the last few days. Yesterday was the last day of classes for the summer session here at Cal and I've been preoccupied with finishing up teaching my public speaking class and a really interesting independent study on Hannah Arendt. More soon to come.

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Today's Random Wilde

But what is the difference between literature and journalism? Journalism is unreadable and literature is not read. That is all.

Monday, August 08, 2005

A Technoprogressive Primer

Tonight I have massively edited and expanded my recent essaylet Technoprogressivism Beyond Technophilia and Technophobia. This is a piece to which the Wikipedia entry on "technoprogressivism" points, and so I wanted it to have the virtue of greater comprehensiveness and greater comprehensability. Also, I have to admit that now that my dissertation is more or less behind me, I had the idea of putting together a book proposal on the idea of technoprogressivism for which this new essay might provide a decent kernel (especially taken together with the other texts with which I've linked it). I welcome comments, criticisms, and especially recommendations as I start to think about what to do with it.

Hollywood's Biocon Noise Brigade

Chris Mooney has written a marvellously technoprogressive column in The American Prospect in which he exposes some of the pernicious assumptions that are endlessly reinvoked in Hollywood's interminable retellings of the Frankenstein myth, among them both the thanklessly underwhelming Revenge of the Sith and the thankfully underperforming The Island.

I won't rehearse the detailed case he makes, but encourage you to follow the link and give it a look for yourself. I do want to call attention, though, to a section of his review in which his argument takes on what looks to me like a powerful wider applicability. His account here represents an unusually clear and forceful repudiation of the bioconservative ethos in general:
I'm sick of gross caricatures of mad-scientist megalomaniacs out to accrue for themselves powers reserved only for God. I'm fed up with the insinuation (for it's never an argument, always an insinuation) that there's a taboo against the pursuit of certain kinds of knowledge and that certain technological achievements -- especially those with the potential to affect life itself -- are inherently "unnatural." Or as Victor Frankenstein puts it in Shelley's novel, "Learn ... by my example, how dangerous is the acquirement of knowledge, and how much happier that man who believes his native town to be the world, than he who aspires to become greater than his nature will allow."

Just look how clear the assimilation of bioconservativism to completely conventional social conservatism Shelley's thesis performs here is... Mooney continues:
Granted, I agree that certain lines shouldn't be crossed. We shouldn't, for instance, clone fully grown human beings. But not because it's taboo; because it's unethical. The point is, we need to use philosophical arguments, not preaching, to determine where the lines ought to be drawn.

(In case you're wondering, I quite agree with Mooney about this given the state of medical knowledge at present. The whole point of distinguishing "ethics" from "taboo" here, I presume, is to point out that should cloning become safe we might indeed re-assess the ethics of the procedure. The point is to assess the human costs, risks, and benefits of science and technology, not to assess whether or not god(s) might be offended by our conduct according to whatever god(s)'s self-appointed priestly mouthpieces say at the moment on the matter while struggling to maintain their hold on worldly authority.) Anyway, he continues on:
Moreover, I'm extremely uncomfortable with the way in which the weapon of the Frankenstein myth is repeatedly used as a club against modern-day medical researchers, who are seeking to cure people, not to become God. The "forbidden knowledge" aspect of the myth is also troubling. Last I checked, knowledge is a good thing, even if many kinds of knowledge can also be abused. Finally, the concept of the "unnatural" is a disturbingly arbitrary criterion to use in ruling out certain kinds of behavior or technologies. Let us not forget that interracial marriage and homosexuality have also been labeled "unnatural."

The broader point is that simply saying "no" doesn't qualify as wisdom, unless you're also capable of explaining why.

To all this I simply could not agree more. Now, go read the whole piece. And don't forget to scoop up his book The Republican War on Science when it arrives in September.

Saturday, August 06, 2005

The Random Wilde

In this world there are only two tragedies. One is not getting what one wants, and the other is getting it.

Bigotry's New Frontier: The Latest Bioconservative Campaign

In a new public relations campaign, the Christian bioconservative Center for Bioethics and Culture is now encouraging its supporters to purchase and sport blue wristbands emblazoned with the words "THE HUMAN FUTURE."

What, you may be wondering, do these bioconservatives mean by the human future?

Well, one thing we can say of it from the outset is that there would appear to be only one future that is a "human" one for the CBC.

How fortunate for us all that there are bioconservatives on hand to let the rest of us know all the many kinds of humans that fail now and will come to fail in the future to pass muster as proper humans.

Wearing this bracelet, say the organizers of “The Human Future” campaign, is “raising the red flag” [this despite the fact that the bracelet is blue] “when human dignity is at stake.”

Always remember that there is a decisive family resemblance between the conventional anti-choice politics of social conservatives, which would hijack the concept of "life" in the service of projects to take away every woman’s right to make informed healthcare choices -- and the efforts of bioconservatives to hijack the concept of human "dignity" in the service of projects to ban and restrict therapeutic choices and avenues of medical research for everyone. And all this just to better reflect their own parochial interests and tastes. (And usually it is literally the same people who are making these parallel arguments.)

"The Human Future" campaign, the CBC continues "is about celebrating the beauty and complexity of human life in all of its various stages from the zygote to the death bed." The enthusiasm of bioconservatives for fetal not-quite-yet persons and vegetative no-longer-quite-still persons is, of course, too well known. No doubt it is a matter of coincidence that in speaking for those who cannot speak for themselves bioconservatives can multiply their own voices incomparably, especially in an era when fewer and fewer people otherwise seem to make choices and voice opinions these bioconservatives approve of.

True to form, the promised bioconservative "celebration of complexity" turns its attentions soon enough to the policing of every trait, every capacity, every technique, every value, every lifeway that nudges the least bit outside the straightjacket of customs and norms that define "dignity" for bioconservatives in particular. Apparently this is the sort of "celebration" that is possible only so long as everybody is attending exactly the same party, whether they want to or not. One recalls H.L. Mencken’s definition of "puritanism" as "[t]he haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy."

"CBC is about equipping people to face the challenges of the 21st Century and we use all the tools necessary to raise awareness about these issues," declare the campaign’s organizers. Permit me a moment to relish the rich commonplace hypocrisy of bioconservative technophobes enthusing even figuratively about "equip[ment]" and "tools"… and now let’s look a bit more closely at "the issues" about which the CBC would raise our awareness.

"[I]ssues related to the taking, making, and faking of human life are the issues that will dominate the 21st Century," the CBC assures us.

One is disappointed to discover that lives lost to back alley abortions, lives lost to sexually transmitted diseases left unaddressed in "abstinence only" sex-education programs, lives lost to treatable diseases left untreated among uninsured Americans and among countless people in the developing world due to the impact of intellectual property regimes beholden to the profits of Big Pharma, lives lost to starvation in the midst of abundance, lives of soldiers and civilians lost in illegal wars, lives lost to deliriously proliferating handguns, lives lost to deteriorating environmental standards, safety standards, healthcare standards, lives lost to multiplying Greenhouse storms… that none of these lives lost would appear to represent the sort of takings of life that exercise the bioconservative imagination, particularly, if the CBC website is any kind of guide to their preoccupations. Now, aborted fetuses… well, boy, that’s another matter!

As for makings of life that represent 21st Century "issues," assisted reproductive techniques are apparently very troubling, even when they eventuate in perfectly recognizable fetuses. For issue that is not "an issue," what is wanted, don’t you know, are very particularly the fetuses that conventional couples arrive at through coupling conventionally. Also, cloned kittens as pets are a problem. Designer super babies and clone armies are also unexpectedly something to worry about quite a bit, even if you are not a writer of dystopian science fiction novels. Curiously enough, worrying about such B-movie monsters turns out to provide all sorts of otherwise counterintuitive insight as to why a pregnant woman shouldn’t be able to know whether or not the fetus she is carrying has phenylketonuria and why we shouldn’t spend money to cure Parkinson’s Disease if embryonic stem-cells are involved. I had no idea!

Most intriguing of all, of course, is the suggestion that in the 21st Century one burning "issue" will be that some apparently living humans will be, in fact, just “faking human life.” Clearly, the bioconsevatives are trying to get out ahead of the 21st Century Cylon Problem. One hesitates to ask just what kinds of genetic and prosthetic medical therapies will be enough to nudge some humans toward the status of "fake human life." Perhaps I should rethink that Lasik treatment, especially since I've already got that whole queer problem happening (why, I'm probably just a fake human just fake living already!).

I wonder, will these 21st Century fake humans know that they’re fakes themselves or will only the bioconservatives know? Just think how terrible it would be to be living your life, muddling along with your modest hopes and pleasures and frustrations, thinking all along you’re a human being with, you know, a human life, and then discover all the sudden that because you’re a medically delayed twin (clone), or the product of some other assisted reproduction technique, or the beneficiary of some genetic therapy or whatever that therefore you’re not a human at all, not living at all, not a rights-bearing, dignity-inhering human at all, but a fake after all! If only more people had donned the bioconservative blue bracelets while there was still time!

This bioconservative campaign looks like to me like something of an historical first: A declaration of pre-emptive bigotry against certain kinds of human beings who don't even exist yet.

One would have thought their hostility to people of other faiths or too-different versions of their own faith, to gay people, to scientifically-literate people, to cheerful nonconformists, to anybody who thinks poor people and women are actually already proper human beings, and to anybody anywhere on earth with scarce oil or other resources they happen to be entitled to by virtue of wanting them would be quite exhausting and time-consuming enough for conservatives without adding to the enemies list as well "all people who may undergo life-enhancing consensual genetic, prosthetic, and cognitive medical therapies that bioconservatives are unfamiliar with or otherwise scared of at the moment."

Of course, one expects American social conservatives to treat the humans they disapprove of as subhumans. The soldiers of the Christian American “culture of life” can always be counted on to declare their bigotry loud and proud (and at considerable length) in this way. But you have to hand it to them this time, getting ahead of the curve like this, joining hearts and hands to extend their antipathy to people who haven't even managed to arrive yet on the scene.

Bioconservative bigotry has found a New Frontier. I have no doubt at all that there will be many more to come.

Friday, August 05, 2005

Anti-Authoritarianism and the Very Idea of Government

Promoted and Adapted from the Comments

I've been a fan of Oscar Wilde's work since I was a kid. Newcomers to the blog should know that The Random Wilde has become one of the "occasional features" here, a place where I regularly offer up various Wildean jokes, paradoxes, brickbats, eruptions of wit, usually without comment. I don't necessarily agree with all of the Random Wildeisms I post here. I can't claim even to have a firm grasp on the full meaning of some of them. I just publish them here because I appreciate their humor, their provocation and often, unexpectedly, their wisdom.

I deeply love Wilde's anti-authoritarianism, but I do not agree with him in those moments when his anti-authoritarianism seems to take the form of a blanket repudiation of the very idea of government. Such blanket repudiations seem to me to be wrongheaded whether they arise from libertarian socialist sensibilities like Noam Chomsky's or from market libertarian sensibilities like David Friedman's (one of whom I still like despite his libertarianism, the other of whom I dislike for more than his libertarianism).

I personally consider both the ideal and the ongoing on-the-ground struggle to implement legitimate, accountable, multilateral, working democratic governance indispensable to any serious anti-authoritarian culture. And so, when one discerns an all too common authoritarian concentration of power in a particular government institution it seems to me this should mobilize projects to reform government and address its abuses, but never to inspire dreams of smashing the state altogether. An anti-authoritarian state (always fragile, often failing) seems to me the indispensable instrument of any plausible radical democratization of human society.

For me, the genius of the democratic idea as it is often actually but imperfectly implemented is that

[1] elections create an institutional alternative to violent contests for power among elites, just as

[2] the separation of powers and the multilateralism of civic society redirect inevitable conflicts among public organizations into projects to improve the responsiveness and check the abuses of these organizations, just as

[3] the tight coupling of taxation to representation helps assure that relatively more powerful people are still accountable to relatively less powerful people, etc.

All the same, though, it is true that these implementations often invite their own abuses, domesticate real opposition, frustrate reform in a mulch of endless complexities, etc.

Despite the fact that I am a champion of democracy I always hesitate to express that support in the form of a self-congratulatory affirmation of democracy as it has been accomplished so far, but rather affirm it as a struggle that will continue from now on.

Gandhi once famously responded to a question about what he thought of western civilization by saying it sounded like a good idea. I guess that's roughly the way I feel about democracy.

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

The Random Wilde

Disobedience, in the eyes of anyone who has read history, is man's original virtue. It is through disobedience that progress is made.

A Quick Word on BIG and p2p and Such

I have been gratified by the unexpected attention attracted by the post Live Long and Prosper: A Program of Technoprogressive Social Democracy, especially the good words over on WorldChanging and on the Responsible Nanotechnology blogs, a couple of my favorite daily online reads. It is no surprise that many of those who have bristled most at the post's technoprogressive recommendations are the various free-marketeers who throng technocentric fora in America to this day.

It is worth remembering that market libertarian Milton Friedman advocated something like a basic income guarantee (BIG) in his book Capitalism and Freedom, as have economists of the left like John Kenneth Galbraith. And it is also true that some versions of BIG are more socialist in spirit. The great Erik Olin Wright’s recent essay “Basic Income as a Socialist Project” is a particularly clear and appealing formulation. Something like my own BIG proposal has been seriously promoted from a variety of ideological locations.

But a good candidate for the historical origin of the proposal is Thomas Paine’s Pamphlet “Agrarian Justice,” published, I believe, in 1796 (that is to say, twenty years after “Common Sense,” five years after “Rights of Man”). In that pamphlet, he proposed “[t]o create a Natural Fund, out of which there shall be paid to every person, when arrived at the age of twenty-one years, the sum of Fifteen Pounds sterling, as a compensation in part for the loss of his natural inheritance by the introduction of the system of landed property. AND ALSO, The sum of Ten Pounds per annum, during life, to every person now living of the age of fifty years, and to all others as they arrive at that age.”

For an abundance of historical analysis, sociological and economic theory and research, and policy discussions related to BIG, including some of the essays I've mentioned here, and in-depth discussions of everything I have mentioned check out the USBIG website.

Finally, once again, I do want to emphasize that it is the technoprogressive connection of social democracy to emerging peer-to-peer models that interested me most personally in my proposal. I hope to see lots more exploration of these connections from technoprogressives in the coming months. James Hughes has reminded me that Douglas Rushkoff's book Open Source Democracy can be considered an interesting recent contribution to such a conversation.

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Monday, August 01, 2005

New Slogans for the Liber-techians, Ayn Raelians, and Retro-Futurists Among Us

The McKinley Administration + Robots. Now, doesn't that sound fun?

The Future. Same As It Ever Was.

Sure it sounds like feudalism, only... it's the future!

Working for the Singularity. And by "Singularity," I Mean Me

All Your Gene Are Belong to Us

Bow before Zod!

Today's Random Wilde

The stage is not merely the meeting place of all the arts, but is also the return of art to life.

The Short Version

A friendly critic ribbed me for yesterday's post, commenting:
Forgive me, but this is a very American-centric debate. Universal health care is seen as a basic right in some countries and the issues that pervade the American debate on this matter are peculiarly American.

It's true my programmatic post yesterday was full of that awful, special defensiveness that anticipates with endless dread the inevitable host of know-nothing objections to any sensibly social democratic proposal that arise out of the awful, special lunacy of market fundamentalist assumptions and rhetoric defining much of the "mainstream" neoliberal to neoconservative spectrum of American politics today. And of course this market fundamentalism is exaggerated in the extreme in the default culture of tech-advocacy and enthusiasm -- which, frankly, amounts to little more than a libertopian noise brigade in many quarters.

Still, I do want to point out that my heath care recommendation was not only for universal basic health care but for a stakeholder grant in enhancement medicine, which has not yet achieved comparable status as a basic entitlement anywhere as far as I can see except in little bits and pieces.

My proposals that technoprogressives demand both a basic income guarantee and an enhancement stakeholder grant are conjoined to the claim that each of 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:

1. as citizen-critics on global networks, providing media oversight, free creative content, surveillance/sousveillence, policy deliberation; and

2. as consensual experimental citizen-subjects, "data-points" in global experiments to hasten and regulate emerging rejuvination and enhancement healthcare.

I don't think peer-to-peer has been connected to social democracy in this specifically technoprogressive way as a matter of course anywhere at all, though I happily admit that such is my own goal.