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

Sunday, February 26, 2006

Octavia Butler Is Gone

I have just heard that one of my favorite authors, Octavia Butler, has died in an accident. She was 58 years old.

This news is simply shattering to me. As were her books.

For now, I can only clumsily testify to the impact Butler's work has had on me since I first read her novel Wild Seed (still one of my very favorites) something like fifteen years ago. I have also taught her stories and novels in many of my courses, and I have been pleased to see how passionately students have responded to her vision, how there will always be a student or two who simply drop everything and then read everything they can find by Octavia Butler once they have found her. Since I discovered Octavia Butler's work, I have read and re-read all of her books many times. It is hard to say why I have found such solace and so much of the courage of my convictions in them, since I also have found them painful to read every single time.

Her science fiction is devoted to the application of human intelligence to the problems we confront, but unlike the Efficacious Men of so much science fiction Butler's characters apply their intelligence to social struggle, sometimes on a sweeping world-historical scale, sometimes at a painfully intimate scale. Science and technology and morphological variation are themes in so much sf, and yet they almost never have the heft or heartbreak that Butler imbued into these themes. Although oiled muscles strain the shirts the boys on the sf pulp covers wear, the characters inside usually come off as brains in vats anyway, somehow, to me -- but Butler's characters really have bodies.

History and struggle and technology leave them both scarred and skilled. They are imbedded in families and in the accidental individual variations of morphology, capacity, and culture, and in mammalian dominance hierarchies that tease at our ethical pronouncements and in a clash of deep, sometimes costly, desires against which they strain and in whose poetry they remain...

My lived sense of the way power and difference play out in the politics of futures our pasts propel us into easily owes as much to Octavia Butler as it does to Michel Foucault or to Donna Haraway or to Judith Butler, and that is saying something. It's hard to convey what it means to me to know there will be no more Octavia Butler books to look forward to, each one always sure to be so much her own, never like anybody else's, in a voice I felt I understood and came to crave, attesting to a world that seemed so painfully real and familiar to me, however alien.

Read her books.

Today's Random Wilde

We teach people how to remember, we never teach them how to grow.

Friday, February 24, 2006

Bouncing Baby Buoy

Marc Maron, caustic comedian and personal ego-ideal (well, not exactly, but I'm a big fan, let's say), anchor of the late and lavishly-lamented Morning Sedition is casting a new buoy upon the wayward wearying waters. Here's the announcement I woke up to this morning in my inbox:
Geniuses, Philosopher Kings and Queens, Working Class Heroes, Progressive Utopians with no sense of humor, Lurking Conservatives-

Marc Maron's Fire Truck Productions and Air America Radio are proud to announce the impending birth of The Marc Maron Show, by C-Section, Tuesday February 28th at 10:00PM on KTLK AM 1150 in Los Angeles California.

Those present at the birth will be comedian Jeff Ross and Oscar nominated screenwriter of A History of Violence, Josh Olson. And, of course, Jim Earl and Brendan ‘PW’ McDonald will be assisting during the procedure. As you all know, it might get messy.


I say get in on the phenom from the get-go.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Today's Random Wilde

It is what you read when you don't have to that determines what you will be when you can't help it.

Monday, February 20, 2006

Jamais Speak, You Listen

Pal, ally, (and, hence, pally?) technoprogressive, all-around right-on-with-your-right-on individual Jamais Cascio over on the endlessly inspiring WorldChanging blog has just posted a wee and wonderful essaylet in manifesto mode, and I agree with every word from beginning to end, so go and read it already! Open futures, y'all!

My "Negativity"

Okay, this is an informal li'l post for which I would like some feedback.

I just got a couple of backchannel communications from good friends who had apparently been tasked to let me know that my aggressive style of argumentation hereabouts and on certain discussion lists I participate in is too "negative" and "off-putting" for some folks -- all of whom, they are quick to add, otherwise enjoy my ideas and my provocative style and etc etc etc etc etc.

These sorts of comments do seem to come up from time to time and I'll admit that they annoy me to no end. I mean, I get it that online fora are social spaces and as such are maintained in large part through the observance of social niceties. I get it that people with whom one disagrees are more likely to come around to one's way of seeing things when they feel respected and welcome. I have no problem with all that.

Nevertheless, it seems to me there is usually no small amount of passive-aggressivity and ugly thought-policing oozing just under the surface of these dewey demands for "positivity." And I guess I find it a wee bit surreal that folks presumably devoted to the redress of global developmental injustice or the possibly now-inevitable prospect of devastating climate change or whatever imagine that there is some reason or even some way we should try to keep conversations on these topics from "going negative."

Look, criticism is a negative dialectic in significant measure, by, you know, definition. People who claim to value brains and the work of brains simply need to get over their frustration and discomfort with the fact that this work won't always help them in their ongoing projects to feel good about themselves.

My patience for this is low. Bad things happen and exposing them in their badness is important. People who think they should only be confronted with "solutions" and "new experiences" and "expressions of hope and joy" (all of which I love as much as the next guy, obviously) are speaking from a position of entitlement and privilege. Believe me, there are plenty of people for whom such a demand is unintelligible, simply because they haven't been coddled all their lives.

There is no way to convey the state of the world in all its irrational suffering and exploitation and violence and then convey the real costs that must be borne in struggling to improve it without making plenty of privileged people feel bad about themselves occasionally. Frankly, I couldn't care less if they're not happy about this.

And of course I shouldn't be so quick with that "they," either. I admit I like to be complimented and petted and enchanted and inspired as much as anybody. Also, I'm a square jawed white guy with a fancy degree and a full head of hair, and I'm plenty privileged, plenty lucky, plenty pampered -- who knows why things stupidly turned out this way and not some other way? Believe me, I understand all that craziness. But, honestly, how thin-skinned do you have to be that you're gonna parachute out of any conversation that doesn't suck your dick every damn minute of the day and tell you how marvellous you are to care when you don't have to and how everything is surely gonna be all right when all is said and done? Gimme a break.

Sunday, February 19, 2006

Technology Needs Democracy, Democracy Needs Technology

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, February 18, 2006

Friday, February 17, 2006

Closing A Door, Opening a Window

Paul Hughes, who I continue to read with pleasure and profit as a poet and sometimes prophet, is frustrated that the default culture of "transhumanist-identification" is to his mind too reductionist-materialist to appreciate the particular joys to which he means to devote his attentions and about which he wants to report back to a world of like-minded adventurers. Now, I'm a pretty rampaging skeptical atheistical materialist-type myself and so Paul's frustrations might not seem to be the sort that would bother me, particularly, but I do actually see exactly where he is coming from, and I completely and emphatically agree with him about the silliness of reductionism and scientism.

What aggravates me personally is what I perceive to be a kind of insistent antipoliticism in too many technophiles -- whether corporate futurologists, hard-boiled technocrats, libertopian anti-democrats, Bayesian triumphalists, "Brights," or the various "transhumanist"-identified folks. By "antipoliticism," I mean to describe in them a curious hostility to or naivete about political life. Often this will involve an outright denial of the necessity or relevance of the political which will drive many technophiles into facile reductionist and engineering fantasies that would circumvent through the recommendations of scientific belief the ineradicable dimension of plurality, insecurity, unpredictability, and conflict inhering in public life in all its scary, threatening, exhilarating promise. Although I think this is a different set of concerns than Paul's, I do think there are interesting connections between our critiques.

For me, in matters of technological development and especially in any struggle for progress, however construed, the political is prior to the technical. The political provokes, articulates, and distributes the technical. And this should surely be reflected in the assumptions and thinking and proposals of advocates of particular technological outcomes and in those who seek to interpret the meaning of ongoing technological change.

I don't personally believe there is such a thing as "technological development," really. There are instead innumerable, often incompatible, developments. And hence I don't think you can properly say "technology" is good or bad as such. Technologies arise in contexts, they are deployed in contexts and to indefinitely many ends that likewise have their contexts. In every case, these contexts lead us into political and other normative considerations.

Hell, I don't even believe in "the future." I believe in a social democracy that wants to keep the present as open as possible, both today and tomorrow. It isn't at all clear to me that progress construed as empowerment, emancipation, and openness is shepherded along much by politics in its "identity-modes." For more on that topic, I recommend, "The Trouble With Transhumanism," Part One and Part Two. For still more grumpy castigatory ranting, try Listen, Transhumanist! And as for you, Paul, rock on, pal! Let a bazillion flowers bloom!

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Today's Random Wilde

If one cannot enjoy reading a book over and over again, there is no use in reading it at all.

Monday, February 13, 2006

Who Our Friends Are

Progress has two aspects, one social and one instrumental.

The struggle for more representative governance, more collaborative social administration, greater transparency from institutions and agents empowered to produce and enforce laws, greater fairness in the distribution of the costs, risks, and benefits of public intercourse for all of its stakeholders, the diminishment of violence and compulsion in interpersonal life, the spread of literacy, numeracy, and critical thought, the consolidation of secular civilization, and the global expansion of a robust rights culture are all components in the social aspect of progress. I think of this social aspect of progress as democratization.

The struggle to increase scientific, instrumental, and medical knowledge, the ramifying accumulation of technological powers, and the ongoing developmental disruption of given capacities, norms, and expectations are all components in the instrumental aspect of progress. I think of this instrumental aspect of progress as denaturalization.

Technoprogressives maintain that any proper account of "progress" will affirm the equal and complementary indispensability of both greater democratization and greater denaturalization to the progressive struggle for human emancipation.

We already live in ineradicably technological societies, and our problems are the problems of technological societies. And we ourselves are by now all of us also ineradicably prostheticized. There is no garden to return to on earth, beyond history, or within our hearts. Any commitment to progressive democratization without a complementary commitment to ongoing denaturalization denies the terms of social struggle as they actually confront us in their specificity. And hence any such “progressivisms” (for example, think about left bioconservative politics and most of the New Age and pastoral-luddite anarchisms) are to my mind false progressivisms, amounting usually to little more than conservative, and sometimes outright reactionary, indulgences in nostalgia and complacency.

Since instrumental powers can be deployed to indefinitely many ends, they can facilitate exploitation and exacerbate injustice just as easily as they can serve fairness and emancipate humanity when directed to better ends. As is always the case in antidemocratic politics, any commitment to progressive denaturalization without a complementary commitment to ongoing democratization denies the terms of social life -- its ineradicable plurality, insecurity, unpredictability, interdependence -- as they actually confront us in their abiding generality. And hence any such “progressivisms” (for example, think about market libertarian technophilia and the various neoliberal and neoconservative corporate futurisms) are to my mind false progressivisms amounting usually to little more than straightforward bids for power and profit, either for personal gain or in the service of the elites with whom one identifies.

Technoprogressives cannot afford to misdiagnose as “progress” any developmental path or outcome that does not contribute both to democratization and denaturalization, and neither can we afford to misrecognize as "allies" in the social struggle for real progress anyone who is committed to only the one aspect of “progress” over the other. This is not to deny that technoprogressives will surely seize opportunistically on any event or outcome that can be made to facilitate progressive ends, just as we will make common cause with any number of allies in contingent campaigns that facilitate technoprogressive ends. But the exigencies of practical political struggle should never confuse our sense of what any progress worth fighting for finally amounts to, nor how a shared understanding of and commitment to progress in its full technoprogressive construal is all we have to ensure we never lose sight of who our friends are.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Today's Random Wilde

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

Saturday, February 11, 2006

Honestly, Who Isn't a Cyborg?

I've heard word that a stirring or scary posthumanity is aborning.

No question, medical and media devices are beginning to enter into some stunningly and disturbingly intimate relations with their makers these days. And in this intercourse of subjects and objects some deeply held expectations, norms, customs are twittering in ways that are edifying and upsetting by turns.

But are we right to think that the prostheticization of humanity is really so unprecedented as all that? Just who are the cyborgs? Who are these troubling chimeras, cyberneticized post-people, roboticized newcomers exactly?

Is it only Kevin Warwick or Steve Mann with their glamorous implants who count and conjure up the specter of scary cyborgological futures, or is it every boring paunchy uncle at the cookout with his cellphone and pacemaker who claws at Pandora's box-lid? Why don't vaccinations or shoe stores or sign language render Average Joe just as post-biological as Locutus of Borg?

When Aristotle defined "man" as a "political animal," that was the first cyborg manifesto as far as I can tell. It was a claim that human beings become different in their "essential natures" when they live together in cities. Already our embodied selves did not decisively end in our skins, but spread out into and were definitively impinged upon by culture and artifice.

Prostheticization does not make humans into posthumans, but defines the inaugural moment when humanity stepped onto the scene of history.


I clicked my way through a path of links in some wayward reading this morning to land on a post written by Carl Zimmer a couple months back. I regularly read Zimmer with pleasure and with great profit, and my appreciation of him is not diminished by the fact that this time around he has annoyed me to no end. He begins with a question that never fails to get my blood boiling: "Why is it that [some] politicians who say they want to strengthen science teaching standards can sound so post-modern about science?"

He offers up and then discusses an example of this dire phenomenon, and I will turn my attention to that in a moment, but first let me answer his question for myself and then ask a question of my own.

His question: Why is it that politicians who say they want to strengthen science teaching standards can sound so post-modern about science?

My answer: They almost never do.

These cynical, ignorant, short-sighted, opportunistic, greedy, hypocritical politicians he is talking about almost never say anything even remotely like the things the theorists who get brainlessly coralled together under the banner of "postmodernism" by their hyperventilating critics say in their actual work about science, knowledge, or power. Never.

Actually reading the work of Arendt, Foucault, Rorty, Haraway, Butler, Latour (or whoever else these critics mean to impugn, if they actually even have anybody concretely in mind, which is doubtful) with even the most superficial care instantly dispels the impression that they are up to anything even faintly relevant to the beliefs, conduct, norms, prescriptions, or attitudes to which their critics would connect them when they start flinging their "anti-PoMo" diatribes around.

Here's my own question for Zimmer. Why is it that intellectuals who say they want to defend science and the intellect from a rising tide of devastating anti-intellectualism can sound themselves so anti-intellectual about the intellectuals who happen to be interested in questions that do not interest them?

Long before the current crop of liberal defenders of science (every one of whom I adore in my heart, by the way, and defend with my last strength as fellow comrades in a struggle against market and religious fundamentalisms, all red in tooth and claw and to all appearances gunning right now for the fragile, lovely secular democratic ideals and institutions to which I am devoted quite as much as they are), it was the dumb-dumb conservatives themselves who pooh-poohed the "rampant relativism" or whatever of the "postmodernists" or however literary and cultural critics and post-Nietzschean philosophers were getting maligned as by the eager wags who shill for the statisticians and bomb builders and money-bag body-bag elites from moment to moment.

Why on earth reality-based liberal intellectual types think it is desirable to steal the moves of anti-intellectual conservatives from the 80s and 90s and direct them toward other liberal intellectual types in the debased and devastated era of the brainless Bushites is entirely beyond me.

Zimmer points to the example of John McCain who said this to the kidz on MTV about evolution:

"I see no reason why students should not be exposed to all theories, recognizing that Darwin's theory's certainly one that is generally accepted in most of the scientific community. I think it's not inappropriate to say there are also people who believe this. Let the student decide."

Of course, McCain is lying. He knows that "Creationism" isn't a theory in any scientific sense. It is neither a falsifiable hyposthesis, nor is it a research program that generates falsifiable hypotheses. It is an article of faith, affirmed by the faithful. McCain knows this because he is, in fact, an educated man, like most of the cynical conservatives playing the faithful rubes for their votes so that the moneyed elites he truly serves can continue to slurp down the payola they crave with the support of compliant complacent manufactured majorities.

McCain is also lying, of course, when he proposes that students should be exposed to all theories. Nobody thinks he is proposing to expose students to the vast array of religious and literary worldviews from Shinto to Silmarillion -- which I would be all for, knowing that almost anybody with a brain will emerge from such an encounter with a poet's rather than a fundamentalist's attitude toward scripture. McCain means to treat consensus science and a very particular minoritarian construal of evangelical Christianity as if they were the only two rivals for conviction on offer.

Zimmer's gloss on McCain's cynical little gambit is very much like my own:
Okay students, we've spent our science class this year learning all theories about the universe. We've learned about astrology, about the creation tales of the Scythians, and we had a special visit from Mr. Peterson who has been trying to create his own universe in his garage with tin foil and a magnifying lens. I know some of you were not happy that we had to squeeze all of modern astronomy into a ten-minute survey, but it's hard to fit all theories into a year. But don't worry about your exam. See, here it is--just one question: "Which theory do you decide is right? Don't bother to explain why.

My question for Zimmer is, why are you so sure that it is McCain and not you who sound "postmodern" here? McCain is just lying. You are the one who is conjuring up a spectacle of multiple competing regimes of knowledge with different histories, methodologies, and social entailments.

I for one do not identify as a "postmodernist" because it is never clear to me who the "postmodernists" really finally are and why they are and why it is useful to so characterize them. But I definitely have been decisively influenced in my thinking by any number of writers who regularly seem to get shoved into that category by their critics (many of whom, disturbingly enough, are also writers who have decisively influenced me, at least whenever they aren't puritanically fulminating about skeery-monster postmodernists).

It seems to me that the so-called "postmodern" thinkers spend much of their time identifying and analyzing historical, moral, social contexts in which scientific practices, claims, entailments, and recommendations occur. While this sort of focus quickly disabuses one of the fantasy that science is a particularly pure or power-insensitive practice it is hardly a focus that denigrates either science or its manifold achievements.

Frankly, to the extent that consensus science depends on a robust experimental culture rather than a presumably manifest truth, on the dedication of its practictioners and educators to its evolved protocols and standards rather than to the authority of its scriptures, and on the widest possible participation of its peers rather than the purity of priests it seems to me that many of the views that are derided as "postmodernist" are profound props to properly scientific culture rather than hurdles standing in its way.

It is science conceived as a fundamentalist faith itself that withers under the scrutiny of these theoretical interventions.

None of this is to say that folks who are disinclined to drink deep at the critical theoretical well are inevitably impoverished for their differences from me in their own taste or temperament. I am not claiming that reading Haraway, Butler, Foucault, or Rorty is indispensible to consensus science in the way a good grounding in laboratory methods will be. I am just saying that champions of consensus science need to think twice before they engage in bullying the intellectual preoccupations of other seekers after knowledge and meaning as a way of shoring themselves up against the attacks of other anti-intellectual bullies. They need to stop railing against the depredations and pretensions of "postmodernism" just because some cartoonish second-hand account makes some theorist or other sound ridiculous, or because they personally happen to find a particular theorist dull or impenetrable.

The enemies of democracy and enlightenment are aristocracy and fundamentalist faith -- same as it ever was. Human brains are making more marvellous knowledges and poetries for our use and delight than any one language or method can compass. If you would defend the human intellect against the attacks of the fearful and the panicked elites, the last thing in the world you want to be is a prig about it. Own up to what you know, know the difference, and let a billion flowers bloom.

For more on these themes, you might want to check out Is Science Democratic? and But Then Who Will Save Us?