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

Friday, June 30, 2006

John Coney/Sun Ra: Space Is The Place

Today's Random Wilde

London is full of women who trust their husbands. One can always recognise them. They look so thoroughly unhappy.

When Robots Kill

The folks over at Meme Therapy did one of their Brain Parade columns yesterday -- in which they ask a handful of people for their responses on some topic or other. The latest question: "The military is increasingly using robotic technology. What kinds of ethical considerations should we be making before we automate killing?" This was my own, rather off-the-cuff, response:
Well, I think ethical considerations should compel us to reject the automation of killing altogether. Ethics also has something to say about the social costs of the war addiction of our bomb-building elites, and about the long-term personal and social costs imposed by the brutal roboticizing process that transforms citizens into soldiers in the first place. You know, killing a human being should simply never seem easy. It’s so obvious it sounds sanctimonious to point it out, but there it is. And since we’re having this exchange in a time of war it should be said often and loudly as well that definitely we know we’re in trouble when so many of our elected representatives sound glib at best when they say war is a last resort. Every war is a disaster, every war is a defeat -- even when we “win” one. Wars of choice like the current catastrophic Iraq adventure especially bespeak an almost unfathomably profound breakdown of the ethical imaginary.

The automation of mass violence -- via mass media distraction, via the video-gamization of weaponry, via the neuroceutical modification of soldiery -- is an extraordinary intensification of the techniques of training and drill that have long functioned as a ritual instrumentalization of the individual soldier. This instrumentalization has everything to do with the obliteration of ethics in the encounter of subjects in a war-zone and its replacement with an encounter between objectified no-longer-quite subjects. The outright roboticization of militarism is a step along a tragic trajectory rather than the appearance of something altogether new.

I was intrigued by this comment to my response (it appeared within minutes): "We're a few thousand years too late for that. The evolution of weapons from stick to spear to sword to machine-gun is all about making it more effecient. I can't see a world where we lay down rifles for rocks, which is where your thoughts would lead us. Nice to think about, just isn't going to happen."

I personally don't think that weapons "evolve" at all, and also I worry that there is an awful lot of important stuff that falls out of any story you might want to tell about the history of killing tools for which "efficiency" is what matters most. My own hope is that things like more respect for the Geneva Conventions is where my thought would lead us, rather than swtiching rifles for rocks (which doesn't seem to me to be that dire a prospect to contemplate, come to think of it). But anyway, the somewhat smug dismissal of what I had to say as empty naive abstraction ("Nice to think about, just isn't going to happen.") was a little rankling to me since it seems that what is being dimissed here are "ethical considerations" as such, which was kinda sorta the premise of the question at hand.

I can watch it happen time after time after time, and still I find as fascinating as ever the joyless spectacle in which a technologist resigns the field of "ought" for some parochial characterization of "is" and convinces himself that this transaction somehow constitutes progress toward solving a problem rather than simply massively missing the point. The key symptomatic moment for me is the statement "I can't imagine a world" which precedes the "hardboiled" rejection of ethical considerations that follows. Just so. The dismissal of "ought" (which I think is doubly indicated by the substitution of an evolutionary for a deliberative vocabulary as well as by the foregrounding of "efficiency") constitutes an impoverishment rather than improvement of intelligence which soon enough constrains what will be available to us in the way of "is." Why this consequence would be imagined to be useful or pragmatic in any way is altogether beyond me.

Monday, June 26, 2006

A Tribute to Octavia Butler

"Taxes are the price we pay for civilization." -- Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.

Over on his personal blog the other day, my friend Mike Treder, wrote this: "Taxation, in my view, is not a ‘necessary evil’ and should not be regarded as an accommodation we grudgingly make. On the contrary, taxation is a positive."

This is a sentiment that seems obviously true to some people and, apparently, equally obviously untrue to even more people, at any rate in the United State these days.

Actually, it seems to me perfectly reasonable that a person will feel a little grumpy about paying taxes (especially in an era when so much tax-money currently goes to line the pockets of bomb building billionaires to kill countless innocents and, hence, ensure there will be future generations of traumatized militants to use as the pretext for keeping that corporate-militarist money machine in perpetual motion), but Mike is of course exactly right when he says: "When applied wisely, wealth redistribution results in positive-sum gains. This works at every level, from family to municipality to region to nation (and, someday, the whole world). It is a means of establishing and building community; indeed, it is the basis of any healthy, interdependent, civilized society."

I think it is very important for dem-left folks to talk regularly about these basic points, however obvious we find them, because there is a vast and insidiously ramifying constellation of hyper-individualist assumptions and arguments that are uncritically accepted across both the contemporary American right and left that really damages our capacity to explain some of the vital intuitions dem-lefties otherwise share about the necessity to accept our common inheritance, our ongoing interdependence, the way we all benefit from general welfare, and so on.

Taxes mean different things in different contexts.

In relatively democratic societies, for example, taxation is tied to representation. This means that government -- which has a monopoly on the legitimate use of force, an invitation to abuse if ever there was one! -- can only fund its activities so long as people who are governed have a say in the public decisions that affect them. There have been few more powerful means ever devised to facilitate good government and undermine government abuses of its powers than this.

Anti-tax, incoherent "tax is theft" positions will often be completely indifferent to the ways in which unequal distributions of power, knowledge, luck, temperament, or what have you will tend to ensure unfair or duressed outcomes that benefit some over others -- even if these are not strictly speaking called "taxes."

This is why it makes no real sense to think of the so-called conservative crusaders who decry the Estate Tax as a "death tax" as true anti-tax crusaders in the first place. The elimination of the Estate Tax presently paid by a small minority of the greatest beneficiaries of relatively democratic diverse secular societies with a division of labor would constitute the stealthy creation of a "birth tax" disproportionately imposed on majorities of citizens, whatever their circumstances, simply by virtue of being born in societies saddled with sprawling irresponsible debt loads accumulated exclusively for the benefit of precisely the elites who refuse to pay.

Unless there is some kind of anarchic dis-invention of government as such, governments will still do things that cost money. And there will not ever be such a dis-invention, dis-mantlement, or "spontaneous order." I do not mean for that assertion to be taken as a kind of resignation or article of faith. On the contrary, the indispensability of statehood seems to me entailed by the following basic facts of political life:

[1] Dispute arises out of the ineradicable diversity of stakeholders who share a finite world but infinitely differ in their positions, histories, aspirations, capacities, and luck. [2] State institutions with monopolies on the legitimate recourse to violence would always arise out of the general preference for even duressed social order to the incessant violent adjudication of disputes. [3] But more to the point, we are all of us inaugurated into moral personhood in the context of already-existing civil orders subjection in which renders us the sorts of conscientious subjects who care to debate questions about legitimate state violences in the first place.

Given all this, it is actually facile to pine after smashing the state: One can only either champion the democratization of that state (which means you are a person of the Left), or champion control of the state by a privileged minority you take to merit that privilege as a matter of birth, incumbency, or natural merit in whatever construal (which means you are a person of the Right).

The dream of smashing the state is not so much utopian or idealistic on my view, as a confession of incomprehension of basic facts of political life.

The Estate Tax is one key way of funding some of the most socially indispensable functions of government in a way that asks most from society's most conspicuous beneficiaries (as would be the steeply progressive taxation of income, especially including investment income, and property, which should also be key sources of such funding as they are not) -- and even ensures that they will not actually suffer the burden of this payment while they live.

These socially indispensable functions of government include, by the way, the provision of healthcare, social security, education, maintaining equitable systems of law, financing of campaigns for elected office, licensing of professions, safety regulation, and access to reliable information. All of these function to render the scene of consent legible by ensuring that it is neither duressed nor misinformed and hence that market transactions are actually free, fair, and yield their benefits without externalizing their risks and costs.

To the extent that general welfare provides the substance of a scene of consent that is free in fact rather than merely as the empty formalism typically championed by market-ideologues of the political right (whatever their party affiliation), it must be pointed out that these provisions prevent stealthy institutionalized initiations of force through social stratifications that enable the relatively secure to benefit opportunistically from the relatively precarious and the relatively knowledgeable to benefit opportunistically from the relatively ignorant.

Either this means that much that has been derided by classical and neoliberal political discourse as "positive" liberty well satisfies the criteria through which "negative" liberty is typically championed, or this means that every benefit assigned to "negative" liberty is produced as neutral through a figurative sleight of hand and is in fact suffused with disavowed contingencies and parochialisms of the kind typically assigned to "positive" liberty.

As another good result, the Estate Tax (just like progressive taxation when it lacks the egregious corporate loopholes of the current corrupt regime) undermines somewhat the tendency for wealth to concentrate in ways that facilitate the emergence of any inevitably anti-democratizing hereditary aristocracy.

The loss of this intelligent source of funding would not eliminate the spending it pays for (and often the very people who decry the Estate Tax most are the very ones demanding the most costly military spending, which is sometimes the very basis of the fortunes they so zealously guard in the first place), it would just displace funding of the spending onto majorities who are most likely to suffer real diminishment in their quality of life by taking on this undue burden and whose misery is most likely to damage the capacity of our democracy to function in general (since misery makes people less informed, less deliberative, less tolerant, and, obviously, less equal and hence more cynical).

But quite apart from these familiar arguments, I think the problems with these "anti-tax" arguments go much deeper still, and involve real conceptual confusions that dem-left folks must grasp and respond to far better than we tend to do.

Part of the problem with the very idea of "involuntary taxation" is that it is oblivious to the ways in which moral categories we depend on for our sense of our dignity, categories like voluntary and property, are not themselves "natural" or "essential" traits inhering in the human condition as such but are the hard-won accomplishments of centuries of social struggle and public collaboration.

You know, I often think conservatives, neoliberals, libertarians, and such just seem to assume laws and infrastructure grow on trees, that they're just there to be taken for granted. Who cares how they came to be or how they are maintained? They'll just always be there. Even if we cheat and loot and dismantle and consume them, they'll automatically replenish themselves.

And so, the focus becomes how we should each focus on getting whatever we can as individuals -- assuming that the physical and ritual and legal artifice that constitutes the context on the basis of which we determine what is possible and important in the first place is simply to be taken for granted. Somebody else will always be around to teach kids manners and critical thinking and the rules of the road, to maintain the bridges and plumbing pipes and treaties and protocols (treaties and protocols that constitute the very substance of what passes for the market -- contrary to facile market ideologues who seem to think markets are natural upwellings of tidal forces of supply and demand rather than the contingent social artifice they conspicuously are instead), to clean up after our messes, and such.

But this kind of facile infantile disavowal of the social construction and public maintenance of what passes for civilization (including the cultural and social props for the categories of individual dignity, ownership, consent, and self-creation as well as for their corresponding experiences) goes very deep.

I suspect that the very experience people are calling upon when they testify to the intuition that there is something frustrating about "involuntary taxation" is an experience indebted to taxation itself. It isn't clear to me that what we mean by something being "voluntary" or that it is important to the dignity of individuals that crucial things be "voluntary" would make much sense or make quite the same sense if we didn't happen to be beneficiaries of a long struggle that sought to empower individuals as citizens in democratic societies devoted to general welfare and human rights, in part through the insistence that the legitimate force deployed by governments be yoked to a taxation that always confers representation in that government.

"Anti-tax" zealots just want to enjoy the accomplishments of civilization without inquiring into their conditions or paying for them themselves. This is definitely a way of thinking that needs to be addressed across many simultaneous layers of conceptual abstraction through to very concrete institutional argument. This is not to say that we won't grumble at the thought of the enjoyable ways we might otherwise spend the cash we have on hand that we must pay instead as the price of civilization. But sensible people neither forget nor disavow that civilization has a price, and that taxes -- like the active citizen participation that better ensures the taxes are spent righteously and well -- are an indispensable part of that price.

MundiMuster! Call Congress Today About Key Medical Marijuana Vote

[via Drug Policy Alliance] Congress will vote on an amendment this week (as early as Tuesday night) that would protect cancer, AIDS and other patients who use marijuana for medical reasons from federal prosecution. Make sure your Representative votes the right way: call him or her as soon as possible, and forward this alert to everyone you know.

Responding to the growing conflict between the states and the federal government over the issue of medical marijuana, Rep. Maurice Hinchey (D-NY) and Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) will offer an amendment to the Science-State-Justice-Commerce Appropriations bill that would prohibit the U.S. Justice Department from undermining state efforts to provide terminally ill and chronic pain patients access to doctor-recommended medical marijuana. The amendment would prohibit the Justice Department from spending any money on arresting or prosecuting medical marijuana patients in states where medical marijuana is legal. 161 members of Congress voted for a similar amendment last year.

Eleven states have enacted effective medical marijuana laws: Alaska, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Maine, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont and Washington. Nevertheless, the U.S. Justice Department continues to spend millions of dollars arresting medical marijuana patients and their caregivers -- even in states where medical marijuana is legal. At a time when violent drug cartels remain at large and threats of terrorism continue to emerge, it is irresponsible for the Justice Department to jeopardize public safety by wasting scarce law enforcement resources conducting raids on hospice centers and medical marijuana patients.

The Hinchey-Rohrabacher medical marijuana amendment would not prevent the Justice Department from arresting people using, growing, or selling marijuana for recreational use. Nor would it prevent the Justice Department from arresting medical marijuana patients in the states that have not approved the drug for this use. It simply prevents the federal government from arresting cancer, AIDS and MS patients that use marijuana for medical reasons in states that have adopted medical marijuana laws.

A 2001 Pew Research Center poll found that 73% of Americans support medical marijuana. A 2002 Time/CNN poll found that 80% of Americans support it. The Institute of Medicine has determined that nausea, appetite loss, pain and anxiety "all can be mitigated by marijuana." Allowing cancer, AIDS, and MS patients legal access to medical marijuana is supported by the American Nurses Association, American Public Health Association, American Bar Association, the Whitman-Walker Clinic, and Kaiser Permanente, among other groups.

What to Do Now: Call the Capitol Switchboard at 202-224-3121. Ask to speak to your Representative. If you're not sure who represents you, the operator can tell you. You can also look up your Representative here by entering your zip code at the top of the page.

What to Say When You Call: Once the operator transfers you to your Representative's office, give the person that answers the phone the following message:

"Hi, I'm a constituent. I'm calling to urge my Representative to vote for the Hinchey-Rohrabacher [pronounced: Hinchee - Roy Bocker.] medical marijuana amendment to the Science-State-Justice-Commerce spending bill, which will be voted on this week. This issue is very important to me."

Please forward this alert to friends and family who can help.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Blogging Break

Howdy all. It may have seemed that I have taken a bit of a blogging break over the last few days, but actually I've been a bloggin' maniac -- just, elsewhere... For one thing my brief break is over and I already have resumed teaching. This time it's an eight-week summer intensive, a Critical Theory survey course at the San Francisco Art Institute. This material is always enjoyable to teach and students at SFAI are always a wonderfully independent-minded and funloving bunch and so I'm actually looking forward to the class -- even though I haven't had much in the way of a break since my insanely hectic teaching load this Spring or the Stanford Conference finished up. Anyway, I've set up the blog for the course and I'm eager to see what the students will do with the space, since each course community seems to take up a blog somewhat differently. Also, I've created a new collaborative blog called "The Technoprogressive" with a few rather likeminded friends, devoted to dem-left analysis of ongoing and emerging technodevelopmental social struggle and to what we discern as an emerging technoprogressive mainstream in American politics and global politics as well. If you like Amor Mundi look in on "The Technoprogressive" as well from time to time, and please offer up comments and criticisms. We're planning on increasing our numbers once we've gotten our sea legs as a blogging community and are on the lookout for likely additions to our fledgling family.

Saturday, June 17, 2006

Dispatches from the Emerging Technoprogressive Mainstream: Let’s Demand Cheap Desalination

Sarah Karaybill over at the Gristmill has posted a link to a Technology Review article by Aditi Risbud about the recent development of carbon nanotube-based membranes with an extraordinary range of exciting applications.

According to the Technology Review piece:
The new membranes, developed by researchers at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL), could reduce the cost of desalination by 75 percent, compared to reverse osmosis methods used today[.] The membranes, which sort molecules by size and with electrostatic forces, could also separate various gases, perhaps leading to economical ways to capture carbon dioxide emitted from power plants, to prevent it from entering the atmosphere....

[LLNL chemical engineer Jason] Holt estimates that these membranes could be brought to market within the next five to ten years... Eventually, the membranes could be adapted for a variety of applications, ranging from pharmaceuticals to the food industry, where they could be used to separate sugars, for example, says co-author Olgica Bakajin, a physicist at LLNL. "Practically, the next step is figuring out how to take a general concept and modify it to a specific application," Bakajin says.

The application that has Karaybill particularly excited is water desalination. And no wonder! As she points out: “The technology could potentially provide a solution to water shortages both in the United States, where populations are expected to soar in areas with few freshwater sources, and worldwide, where a lack of clean water is a major cause of disease.”

Preventable deaths from treatable water-borne diseases, as well as from the drinking of contaminated water supplies are an ongoing global catastrophe. Meanwhile, appalling aquifer depletion, desertification, the proliferation of slums without remotely adequate infrasctructure or social support, and the ongoing relentless mismanagement of our precious water commons via privatization all actually define contemporary corporate-military models of urban development in the present day. For some more details, check out two fine books with the same title (but different subtitles), Water Wars: Drought, Flood, Folly, and the Politics of Thirst by Diane Raines Ward and Water Wars: Privatization, Pollution, and Profit by Vandana Shiva, and also Water: The Fate of Our Most Precious Resource by Marq de Villiers.

These are issues that all progressives need to make a priority here and now. And this is especially true for technoprogressives who are post-naturalist environmentalists and who advocate dense smart green urbanization as a key struggle for both global social justice and sustainability, and who are looking for ways to repudiate suburban sprawl that don’t involve romantic pastoral fantasies of some kind of relinquishment of technoscientific civilization (the consequences of which would likely be genocidal whether deep ecologists and luddite greens are willing to deal seriously with this entailment or not).

Now, I can’t help it, I just think it’s cool for one thing that Karaybill, like a growing number of contemporary green-minded folks these days, thinks things like nanotubes are cool. It wasn’t too long ago when I felt I had to keep a pretty strict demarcation between friends I could talk about my sustainability preoccupations with, as opposed to friends I could talk about my emerging technologies preoccupations with for fear of getting dismissed as na├»ve or worse from either side, even if, for me, it seemed like there was a deep and profound confluence between these preoccupations. So, I thought this post was really heartening.

But I do want to conclude this post by turning in perhaps a slightly more contrarian way (or maybe not so much, actually) to her own conclusion for a moment. Speaking of the new membranes and all the sunny projections made for them in the Technology Review article Karaybill writes: “Cleans up water, works against climate change. An amazing technology indeed. And will it come into widespread use anytime soon? My Magic 8 Ball (which always tilts toward skepticism) is skeptical.”

Of course, I understand exactly where she is coming from here. Every green-minded person knows all too well the way in which logically possible but somehow it seems never, ever concretely available technofixes have been proposed again and again as “rebuttals” to reasonable assessments of technodevelopmental risks and costs driven by profit-driven nationist-driven corporate-military models of global technoscientific research, development, and diffusion. Also, everybody knows that you need to take technoscience press releases with a grain of salt, whether they are published in the hopes of whomping up investment dollars in private industry or grant money in academia. So, sure, I’m skeptical, about these marvelous membranes, too. You'd have to be an utterly hype-notized technophiliac not to be critical of claims like these.

But skepticism cannot be the end-point for technoprogressives. It has to be the point of departure.

So, I say, let’s demand funding for more research and development along these lines. I say, let’s demand desalination.

Readers of Amor Mundi already know I’m a big fan of the Apollo Alliance, a technoprogressive campaign to develop renewable energy alternatives to oil and gas as quickly as possible, providing new jobs, cheap clean energy, and an incomparably more stable geopolitical scene.

It seems to me that technoprogressives should organize a comparably ambitious project to employ nanotechnologies for desalination for the billions who are migrating to seaside mega-cities and for the on-site purification of water for the world’s most vulnerable populations. Like the Apollo Alliance this would be a direct progressive political movement to take up technoscientific research and development and turn it to the solution of urgent human problems rather than to short term profit-making for established elites. And like the Apollo Alliance it would be a profound assault on the disastrous anti-democratic model of enterprise that drove primitive extractive industrialization throughout the bloodsoaked twentieth century.

If the Apollo Alliance and comparable campaigns represent democracy’s fledgling leave-taking from the feudal petrochemical aristocracy, desalination would represent the equally necessary repudiation of the privatizing water wars through which that very aristocracy is already hoping to maintain its power and privileges past Peak Oil.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Today's Random Wilde

I love hearing my relations abused. It is the only thing that makes me put up with them at all.

Ballot Initiatives for the Emerging Technoprogressive Mainstream

It is widely known that movement conservatives have long used targeted ballot initiatives to divide and demoralize American majorities with wedge issues while energizing their most extreme base voters in election after election to the cost of us all. Anti-gay hate initiatives represent only the most recent examples of such tactics. According to the Center for American Progress, progressives are finally discovering their own version of the politics of the ballot initiative.

Of course, it has long been understood that conservative politics in general benefit from depressed voter turnout, while progressive politics depend on wider participation. And so, progressive ballot initiatives will tend to be about uniting and energizing voters rather than debasing public discourse and hence discouraging all but rightwing zealots from participation in the very democratic processes they despise, will tend to be about protecting and celebrating the diversity of our citizens rather than whomping up fear and hatred against difference, will tend to focus on hope rather than resentment and terror.

The Center for American Progress notes four key ballot initiatives that are likely to benefit democrats and progressives in upcoming elections:

MINIMUM WAGE INCREASES... 83 percent of Americans favor increasing the federal minimum wage from $5.15 an hour (where it's been stuck since 1997) to $7.15 an hour. Forty-nine percent of Americans say they "strongly support" such an increase; the issue "receives widespread support from both Republicans and Democrats, wealthy and poor." The right wing knows this, and in states like Arkansas and Michigan, it has been able to avoid ballot showdowns by passing increases through the standard legislative process. But in states such as Arizona, California, Colorado, Missouri, Montana, Nevada, Oklahoma, and Ohio, voters will have the opportunity to join 18 states (along with the District of Columbia) who have raised their minimum wage above the federal level[.]

ALTERNATIVE ENERGY DEVELOPMENT: In November, Californians will... vote for the Clean Alternative Energy Initiative, a ballot measure that would "impose a wellhead tax on oil companies operating in California and divert the money" to finance programs to reduce California's oil dependence by 25 percent over 10 years... Californian will have the opportunity to become the first state to commit to beating the oil addiction. The initiative will be fighting against the deep pockets of the highly profitable Big Oil companies. Three oil companies in particular have "led the way" in funding opposition to the initiative... Chevron... Occidental Petroleum, and Aera Energy LLP, "a partnership jointly owned by oil giants Exxon Mobil and Shell"... Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who has been trying to "tout his environmental credentials"... has opposed the measure[.]

STEM CELL RESEARCH: In Missouri, a ballot initiative will allow voters to decide whether to allow stem cell research and stem cell therapies permitted by federal law. The initiative would also create oversight mechanisms to ensure the research proceeds ethically and outlaws human cloning. If stem cell research yields effective treatments, millions of Missourians would stand to benefit from stem cell therapies, including those with spinal cord injuries, Parkinson's disease, Lou Gehrig's disease (ALS), and diabetes. According to a recent survey conducted by a conservative pollster, 56 percent of Missourians approve of stem cell research, while only 24 percent disapprove, and 71 percent approve of therapeutic cloning...

OVERTURNING ABORTION BANS: Voters in South Dakota will be given the opportunity to overturn the "strictest abortion ban in the nation." In March, Gov. Mike Rounds (R) signed legislation to ban the procedure, even in cases of rape or incest. The law, which was slated to take effect on July 1, targets doctors in South Dakota by making it a felony for them to perform any abortion, except to save the life of a pregnant woman. South Dakota Campaign for healthy families filed a petition on May 30 to put the decision to the voters with more than 37,000 signatures when they only needed 16,728. Once the signatures are validates, the abortion ban will be suspended pending the outcome of the November election. After the law was signed, a survey by state polling firm Robinson & Muenster reported 57 percent were opposed to the law, while 35 percent supported it.

I think it bears mentioning that not only will all four of these ballot initiatives produce progressive outcomes, mobilize progressive voters, all the while uniting citizens of all parties to progressive endeavors, but three out of four of these mainstream progressive measures are also technoprogressive: Two of them champion regulated scientific research and development in the service of shared human goals and a third would secure access to the consensual use of available technologies to end unwanted pregnancies, to maintain health as citizens themselves see fit, and hence to shape their own bodily fortunes.

This is still more evidence of the conspicuous confluence of people powered democratic politics in America and the emerging technoprogressive mainstream.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

MundiMuster! The "Lieberman Problem" for Beltway Dems

[via dKos ] Senator Chuck Schumer has just been quoted saying that the DSCC "fully supports" Sen. Joe Lieberman in his primary bid, and he refused to rule out continuing that support if Joe "Joementum" Lieberman were to run as an independent. As Kos points out, this means "Schumer just gave Lieberman permission to quit the Democratic Party" in the face of his trouble in his upcoming race against the more genuinely progressive and ever-more popular challenger, Netroots favorite Ned Lamont.

Schumer went on to point out that one "can run as an independent, you can run as an independent Democrat who pledges to vote for Harry Reid as Majority Leader." But as Kos is quick to reply: "That's true, when there isn't a Democrat on the ballot, like in Vermont. Connecticut isn't Vermont."

From the DSCC mission statement:
Our mission is to elect more Democrats to the United States Senate. We are the largest organization committed to electing a Democratic Senate in the country. From grass-roots organizing to candidate recruitment to providing campaign funds for tight races, the DSCC is working hard all year, every year to increase the number of Democratic Senators.

No ifs ands or buts about it, supporting Lieberman over a victorious Lamont would constitute an unambiguous violation of the DSCC's mission. There is little doubt that such contortions reflect the panic of a coddled ineffectual Old Guard content with their petty privileges and comfortable pieties confronted out of the blue with a new generation of reformers and true progressives with the imagination, intelligence, and energy to save the world and no patience in the least for a permanently marginalized opposition party going through the motions while a corrupt bloodthirsty Empire crumbles around their feet.

Kos concludes: "Schumer is a Democrat. He runs the DSCC. He needs to respect the will of the Democratic voters in Connecticut."

Senator Reid's office apparently is "refusing to comment" on this question. Barbara Boxer, who I otherwise adore, actually endorsed Lieberman on the floor of the Yearly Kos convention, which she had every right to do, but which I now see as an ominous premonitory rumbling of the current brouhaha. Chariman Dean has made it clear that the DNC will support whichever democrat wins the primary, exactly as one would expect and exactly as we must demand from the DSCC.

Remind the Dems who they work for. Let them know that times are changing. Here's some relevant contact information:

DSCC:

info@dscc.org
Phone (202) 224-2447

Schumer's office:

(202) 224-6542
(212) 486-4430

DNC

202-863-8000

Today's Random Wilde

There is no reason why a man should show his life to the world. The world does not understand things.

MundiMuster! Some Rights for Great Apes

[via The Great Ape Project]
Great Apes Need Your Help! The Spanish Parliament is scheduled to consider a resolution supporting legal rights for non-human great apes at the end of June. This resolution recognizes the need for some basic legal protections and rights that will protect non-human great apes from mistreatment, slavery, torture, death and extinction.

The proposed proposition:

The Parliament demands the Government to declare its adhesion to the Great Ape Project and to undertake the actions necessary in the international round tables and organizations, for the protection of The Great Apes from miss treatment, slavery, torture, death and extinction.

Please take just a few minutes to let the Spanish government know that there is worldwide support for this important legislation. You can do this by posting a comment on the Great Ape Project's website in Spain by clicking on http://www.proyectogransimio.org/completa.htm and selecting "libro de visitas"

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Cackles from the Balcony: "Release the Gas of Peace!" Edition

According to the BBC, "[t]he US military investigated building a 'gay bomb,' which would make enemy soldiers 'sexually irresistible' to each other, government papers say."

While I am the first to admit that this notion holds no small amount of allure as the premise for potentially endless numbers of hot porn flicks, I do want to go on record to say that this isn't what I mean when I refer hereabouts to the technodevelopmental facilitation of the nonviolent nonmilitary adjudication of political disputes...

Of course, this is all arrant silliness, but I do think it wouldn't hurt for technoprogressive types to get more in the habit of never talking about "enhancement" without specifying we always mean "informed, nonduressed consensual practices of modification." It's not exactly an elegant turn of phrase, I know -- and any suggestions from readers for more pithy euphonious formulations are welcome! -- but I think consent just has to be front and center every time in the cases we make against bioconservatives and corporate futurists else I fear we'll do more harm than good.

In a way, when you think about it, neoliberal globalizers were making a weak version of this argument from at least Bush I through the Clinton era. And I trust we all know what that unfortunate experiment amounted to. (Imagine that last line being read in my best Lady Bracknell impersonation.) What did the neoliberals used to like to say? No nation with a McDonalds will ever attack another one or something? The imagined spectacle of immemorial ethnic conflicts rendered docile by recourse to a new shared culture of McNuggets hardly has the erotic charge of humpy soldiers, high as kites, suddenly finding themselves making love not war, and it's sad, to say the least, to realize that the McWorld claim really was earnestly intended for a time as a kind of beneficent sociocultural "enhancement" argument... But, then, of course most claims issued from the perspective of the momentarily powerful when they are crowing about "civilizing missions" end up looking pretty embarrassing in retrospect.

Perhaps there is a lesson in all that.

Saturday, June 10, 2006

Today's Random Wilde

There is no secret of life. Life's aim, if it has one, is simply to be always looking for temptation.

Friday, June 09, 2006

And Now, a Few Words About Democracy

Democracy is a host of social formations all of which can be taken to be implementations of the idea that people should have a say in the public decisions that affect them.

This ideal is expressed in a number of familiar formulations and slogans, "we the people, in order to… etc., etc., ordain and establish," "governments... deriv[e] their just powers from the consent of the governed," "no taxation without representation," "nothing about us without us," etc. -- all of which are clearly related but have importantly different institutional entailments.

In my view, governments should legitimate themselves in the eyes of the world in large part through their adherence to (a broad construal) of democratic governance. Democracies should legitimate themselves in the eyes of the world in large part through their adherence to human rights norms. Human rights regimes should legitimate themselves in the eyes of the world through the work they do to secure the public scene of informed non-duressed consent on which human dignity depends in large part for its maintenance and legibility. Also, I agree with the pragmatic idea that democracy in its essence seeks to provide nonviolent institutional recourse for the adjudication of disputes.

Since the point of departure for rational political thinking (as opposed to, say, rational scientific, moral, or ethical thinking) is that there is and will always be an ineradicable plurality of values and ends among the peers who share social worlds governed by civic institutions, this implies that the ongoing work of reconciling aspirations nonviolently is constantly renewed and never-ending. It also implies that there will be an ongoing balancing act between the particular provisional compromise formations that effect this reconciliation from moment to moment historically and the more universal or general or stable or meta-contextual language and architectural constraints that enable this work of reconciliation to take place at all. All this, in turn, implies a certain dynamism, openness, and experimentalism across the layers of democratic culture, from mediation of concrete disputes, all the way through to reformism at the level of actual democratic institutions themselves.

Not to put too fine a point on it, it seems to me, then, that there is something inherently radical and revolutionary about even the most quotidian and mainstream democratic conception of politics -- as opposed to, say, conventional conservative politics.

Now, we live (and have done, ever more so, since the classical or Revolutionary era) in what Foucauldians would call disciplinary and bio-political regimes, which is to say in an era in which governments legitimate themselves and function through social administration -- the regulative norms for which tend to be things like, say, "productivity," "general welfare," "risk" and "stress management," etc. -- articulated for the most part through normalization and atomization operations in the context of multilateral social, civic, and international institutions.

A large part of what democratic regimes will do in a disciplinary/bio-political era is provide for nonviolent adjudication of disputes through a pre-emptive amelioration of social problems that would tend to engender such conflict (plague, hunger, homelessness, addiction, illiteracy, intolerance, inassimilable wealth disparity or inequity, corruption, etc.) or to secure the scene of legible informed nonduressed public consent by maintaining the material social conditions of reliable information, equity, diversity, security and such on which it relies.

These democratic values might well be satisfied through different means in an era that was not defined by bio-politics and modern disciplinarity -- eg, the aristocratic Greek era, the Republican Roman era, the agrarian Jeffersonian era, possibly a post-bio-political era of morphological freedom in the context of a culture of consent or a post-disciplinary era of peer-to-peer democracy, what have you. (By the way, I am not convinced that these latter ideas truly are post-biopolitical or post-disciplinary, but that is a vast digression for another time.)

Anyway, the work of social administration in this disciplinary/bio-political era of North Atlantic democracy in the era post-colonial military-corporate globalization usually doesn't seem particularly revolutionary at the day to day level of application and routine, but all this is crucial to an understanding of the way democracy works in the world in which we live today.

It is for this reason that I am content to describe myself as a social democrat for the most part. Understanding how this gray quotidian level of administration connects to the maintenance of the scene of consent, however, yields a fairly radical (in the sense of fundamental) understanding of the democratic project, but also tends to yield attitudes on particular political questions of the day that will land one in the camp of "radicals" as often as not.

(Wonks with any kind of concrete knowledge of policy and practice conjoined to the most rudamentary systemic analysis of institutional interdependies and even a modest commitment to mainstream progressive democratic aspirations will regularly discover as a matter of course that they are advocating positions on sustainablility, on reforms of election protection and campaign finance, on health, education, and welfare entitlement, even basic income guarantees and universal single-payer healthcare, and such, that are, from the perspective of the mainstream discourse -– extruded through the sausage factory of corporate media and the bought-and-paid corporate-militarist noise machines –- "extreme left" positions.)

But I do also describe myself as a radical democrat in moments when I want to call attention to the ways in which the language of normativity at the root of so much social administration can often work against the grain of the deeper democratic commitments to openness, diversity, and experimentalism, or when I want to call attention to the ways in which a stealthy conservatism colonizes the organizations themselves that do the otherwise worthy work of administration, or whenever it seems important to break the crust of convention to remember the antagonisms, vulnerability, unpredictability, novelty, chance at the heart of the political world as such.

People Powered Politics and the Emerging Technoprogressive Mainstream

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

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

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

One reason I think Americans can change quickly and radically enough to redirect worrisome technoscientific developments (insanely destructive devices, panoptic surveillance, industry-induced climate change and species extinctions, intrusive homogenizing "therapeutic" medical regimes, and so on) to democratic and emancipatory ends instead is because I believe many of the problems that demand the strongest redress to accomplish this emancipatory rearticulation of technoscientific development are at root problems of basic accountability and transparency for public authorities (government, corporate, academic), problems of corruption, problems of media consolidation, problems of the corporate-military co-optation of civic life, problems of threatened democratic and deliberative processes, problems of defending and funding universal entitlements, problems of securing universal education to satisfy the demands of democracy for a literate, numerate, critical, and civic-minded citizenry, problems of deeply conservative intellectual property regimes, and so on.

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

The politics are prior to the technological toypile on offer. I am personally almost endlessly frustrated by what appears to be an abiding indifference and naivete about political matters evidence by many "technophiles." This is an indifference that at its most extreme effloresces as the actively anti-political hostility at the core of technocratic attitudes and, especially, in the libertarian viewpoints espoused by so many technophiles who do take politics seriously enough to think about them in any kind of sustained way. But apart from the fact that this is an insight that inspires frustrations in me (and of course I write in ways that reflect this frustration here at Amor Mundi all the time), it is also true that the priority of the politics over the toypile to the actual shape of techscientific development in history is cause for real hope (and I think it is fair to complain that I don't write often enough here at Amor Mundi in ways that reflect this hope).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Politics Are Prior to the Toypile

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

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

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

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

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

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

That's what I mean when I say technology needs democracy and democracy needs technology. I eagerly welcome questions, comments, and criticisms.

Monday, June 05, 2006

With Enemies Like Saletan Who Needs Friends?

William Saletan has just published a curious review of the "Human Enhancement Technologies and Human Rights" Conference (usually described by its acronym HETHR) that took place last weekend at Stanford University. I was a participant in the Conference myself, and even helped out a bit in organizing it, though the real heavy lifting was undertaken by my friend and collegue James Hughes, the Director of the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies (IEET) where I am currently a Fellow, and Richard Glen Boire and Wrye Sententia, Directors of the Center for Cognitive Liberty & Ethics where I have been a Summer Fellow in the recent past.

The subtitle of Saletan's piece prepares us instantly for the sort of rhetoric to come: "Cyborgs, self-mutilators, and the future of our race." (Just who he means by "our" here will be clearer in a moment, but already one can be fairly sure that "self-mutilators," whoever they might be, won't figure in Saletan's racial "we.") That is to say, the title sets the scene quite literally -- one might even say it makes a scene -- offering up a vivid phantasmagoria of prejudicial figures and images that begins to do Saletan's argumentative work for him before a single claim is actually offered up for our consideration. Such snapshots, provided without context but with ample smirking, take up more than half of the piece. And no wonder. As we shall see soon enough, when Saletan finally gets around to reporting the claims that occured in the Conference itself or proposes his own claims in assessment of it, the results are hardly so edifying to his own positions as the prerational shudders of Kassoid repugnance his freakshow act is likely to yield for him.

Saletan begins quite literally like a circus barker, jerking aside a curtain to the gasps of a horrified audience: "Heeeeeeere's Cat Man!" the piece begins.

"On a projection screen," he intones, we find at "a picture of a guy who'd done himself up like a cat -- not with makeup, but with tattoos and surgery. The guy's whiskers were implanted. His nose had been converted to a cat nose. His teeth had been filed into the shape of cat teeth. His head has been flattened, and he was looking for a doctor to implant a tail." Saletan's readership at Slate presumably oohs and ahs like a throng at a fireworks display. And Saletan is delighted. "And that's just the tip of the freakberg," he assures us. Next up, he winks, "there's Lizard Man, Amputee Online, the Church of Body Modification, and Suspension.org, the Web site for people who like to be impaled on hooks."

Not to put too fine a point on it, Saletan throws the hammer down: "These are weird people with weird ideas." But perhaps that is too harsh for readers in a nation that prides itself on its individualism and self-expression? "[S]ometimes," he grudgingly supposes, "it takes a weirdo to see what's odd about what the rest of us call normal." Well, isn't that nice? Saletan thinks he represents the normality "the rest of us" share as against transsexuals and kooky folks with tattoos.

The Human Enhancement Technologies and Human Rights Conference Saletan also assures us early on was mobbed with "nerds." This is the key in which he plays out the second movement in this endlessly prolonged ad hominem "review" of the event. "Remember those kids who played Dungeons & Dragons and ran the science-fiction club in your high school?" Oh, yes, "the rest of us" remember them one presumes the "normal ones" are now expected to reply.

"This was the kind of conference where people talked about the Matrix the way Christians talk about the Bible," he chuckles. I didn't attend any panels in which the Matrix was discussed, but I am intrigued to know whether he means that attendees spoke of the Matrix to provide a rationale for amending the Constitution to make lesbians and gay people second-class citizens, treat women as fetal incubators, and bomb foreigners unlucky enough to be born in nations with oil American billionaires want to control. I certainly agree with Saletan that that would be an interesting and appalling panel discussion to be a fly on the wall for. But maybe he means something else here, since sometimes I misread the special signals bioconservatives use to communicate their intolerances with one another. Finally, Saletan conjures up here yet again the apparently evergreen hilarious spectacle of a gathering "where speakers apologized for their discomfort with piercings or tattoos."

Now, this is a pretty relentless parade of caricatures at this point, and Saletan has to be worried that at least some people might get the idea that there is something interesting or at any rate titillating afoot here. And didn't he mention that this was an event that took place at a prestigious University? Those sufficiently intrigued by Saletan's vivid tableau or by the slight cognitive dissonance that might eventuate from the fact that Saletan would choose to attend and then report on such an freakish and marginal event in the first place would discover with a few mouse clicks that HETHR was a deeply serious interdisciplinary event thronged in PhDs, public officials, scientists, and policymakers from a number of continents and institutional locations, governmental, academic, legal, advocacy, and so on.

By the way, in highlighting all the staid conventional credibility and serious intellectual engagement actually in evidence throughout this event my point is not to endorse Saletan's ugly implication that there is something inherently ridiculous about transsexuals or members of body-modification communities or the rest of the folks Saletan seems to want to dismiss here as inherently disreputable freaks. It is just that the event Saletan describes in his little hit-piece was simply not remotely well captured in this description of his. The sad spectacle of his smug bigotry in these matters is less interesting than the fact that he felt it necessary to take such a tack in the first place.

As the piece winds down, Saletan actually reports some small amount of the content of the conference panels. "Speakers and attendees... invoked Marcuse, Sartre, and Heidegger. They preached struggle and solidarity. They spoke of speciesism, morphological diversity, techno-progressive transhumanism, somatic epistemic technology, nonanthropocentric personhood ethics, and the 'illusory distinction between self and cosmos.'" In anti-intellectual America such a description is likely to provide for at least some people still more occasion for enjoyable ridicule as did the depiction of piercings and queers and nerds that preceded it, but for a substantial number of readers this will surely be the moment when Saletan's earlier caricature of the event as a kind of freakazoid dance party will vanish instantly and for good.

The fact of the matter is that it will always be easy to ridicule some of the tropes and topics of bioethical discourse as "kooky." But when human-animal hybrids and reproductive cloning are discussed in Presidential State of the Union Addresses, part of what this means is that disruptive technological development is making the reality we are trying to cope with a little "kooky" and, hence, that serious people of goodwill may need to be willing to look "kooky" to figure out just what needs to be done to make the world healthier, safer and more fair.

But it is also true that growing numbers of Americans are enthusiastic about the prospect of technological research and development directed at conspicuous social problems, renewable energy sources, stem-cell research, material science, better computation, open access to peer-to-peer digital networks. Meanwhile, there is growing hostility to the current Bush Administration's endless coddling of primitive extractive petrochemical industries and its no less endless hostility to the recommendations of consensus science on climate change, evolution, sensible security and monitoring measures, regulation of industrial toxicities, harm reduction in matters of sex and substance use, and on and on and on. All this is to say that a bioconservative like Saletan may not have his finger on the pulse of what looks technoscientifically "kooky" in a secular culture with a quickly emerging technoprogressive majority (which, in spite of everything, America still looks like it is shaping up to be).

Saletan's bioconservative intuitions are likely to backfire even more conspicuously when they register the "social conservatism" of his politics. For me, there has been nothing more frustrating about the default culture of technology-focused discourse over the last two decades than the widespread facile market libertarianism that became conspicuous for all in the heyday of the 90s "Long Boom" irrational exuberance of the extropian and Wired digirati. This intellectual affinity to market fundamentalist foolishness was exacerbated by the fact that actual technological development was and remains driven conspicuously by the definitive corporate-military ends of established elites who likewise clothe their aristocratic agendas in the language of "free trade." Lately, the catastrophic failures of the Bush Administration and their conspicuous connection to libertarian ideology (Katrina is the bathtub libertopian Norquist wanted to drown government in, lawless, mercenary Iraq is the "free market" laboratory that realizes Ayn Rand's "Galt's Gulch") have finally reminded Americans of the hard lessons that in earlier eras inaugurated the New Deal and the Great Society -- and are likely to facilitate the progressive struggle for universal single payer health care, renewable energy independence, reinvigorated global multilateral institutions, free lifelong public education and training, and a basic income guarantee in our near future. Like most conservatives, though, Saletan has almost no sense at all at how out of touch he is with the change that is in the wind. And so, when he goes on to ridicule the progressive politics of many of the participants of the Conference he is unlikely to realize the work of legitimation such comments are likely to do for readers who may have long dismissed technology discourse precisely because it has rarely been progressive enough hitherto.

"Libertarians got a few nods at the conference," Saletan notes, "but mostly for opposing drug laws and the draft." But, along with vast majorities of the American people according to most polls, the Conference "radicals" could be heard "call[ing] the United States a 'bloated uberpower,'" he declares, as if the very idea were shocking. "They cheered calls for a worldwide guaranteed income, free lifelong therapy, and a universal right to art and paid vacations," he continues. With more endorsements like these, I would expect HETHR II to be a mob-scene!

As his piece draws to its close, the wind seems to have left the sails of Saletan's project somewhat. Although he is still quick to label the ideas "creepy," "oddball," and "cockeyed," he admits that it was provocative and penetrating when Cambridge biogerontologist Aubrey de Grey wondered in his talk whether human culture is "stuck in a 'trance' of fatalism about aging? If we realize it can be slowed or stopped, 'will aging become repugnant,' like any other disease?" Saletan concedes there is something to the insight he regularly heard that there is a certain "illogic [in] the way we dope kids with caffeine while banning other stimulants," or "odd" in the fact "that we denounce steroids as cheating but ignore athletes who get Lasik or muscle-enhancing surgery." Maybe, he grudgingly avows, it is sensible to "look back at the doubling of human life expectancy in the last century and wonder why we shouldn't try to double it again." Indeed, he apparently even concurs with the striking intuition of some of the most radical speakers in the Conference itself that "[t]o our hunter-gatherer ancestors, they figure, we already look posthuman."

For me the most powerful lesson of this Conference -- whatever the superlative technologies that were sometimes conjured up to illustrate this or that arcane bioethical dilemma -- is that there is finally something really quite astonishingly quotidian and mainstream about the idea that we should defend and strengthen the right of citizens to informed nonduressed consent to genetic, prosthetic, and cognitive medical modification, and that the real policy difficulties are matters of ensuring that everybody has access to good consensus scientific information about emerging medicine, and that the risks, costs, and benefits of these developments are all fairly shared among all the stakeholders to that development. Thrusting aside all the sometimes silly neologisms, the futurisms, posthumanisms, and technophiliasms, there is something deeply and intimately human about the traffic between biology and cultural/technological practice that produce the fragile and lovely personages that house our hopes and fears and memories.

Saletan closes with this last vignette from the Conference. "I noticed a little guy sitting near the back with a gizmo stuck to his head. I thought he was some kind of techno-showoff. When he finally got up to give his talk, it turned out that the gizmo was the outer part of a hearing-assistance implant. He's deaf. He showed us the inner part on the projection screen: a metal doodad that says 'Advanced Bionics' and is wired through the gore in his head. Then he played audio of what he used to hear through his crude old implant, and what he hears now through his new one. How sweet the sound. Amazing grace."

Although there have been many published reviews of HETHR that were dramatically more enthusiastic about the event, Saletan's is by far the one that makes me feel the most hopeful about the future. With "enemies" like Saletan, who needs friends?

Mundi Muster! Call Senators Feinstein and Boxer to Stop the Hate Amendment

[via MoveOn]
Today, President Bush will make a speech on a topic that the Senate is gearing up to vote on tomorrow. It's not Iraq, or rising gas prices or our broken health-care system. It's an attempt to write discrimination into the Constitution by permanently denying marriage equality to same-sex couples.

There are obviously bigger problems in front of the nation today. So why would the Republicans do this now? As Jack Cafferty said on CNN, "It's blatant posturing by Republicans, who are increasingly desperate as the midterm elections approach. There's not a lot else to get people interested in voting on them, based on their record of the last five years."

Republicans want to divide the nation for the 2006 elections and they're attacking same-sex families to do it. The last time Republicans tried this they failed, but they're expected to make gains this year. Sens. Feinstein and Boxer are going to be key. Can you call Sens. Feinstein and Boxer and tell them that you oppose an Amendment that would permanently write discrimination into the Constitution?

Senator Dianne Feinstein
Phone: 202-224-3841

Senator Barbara Boxer
Phone: 202-224-3553

Sens. Feinstein and Boxer are feeling intense pressure from the extreme right-wing, and folks like James Dobson are making sure Sens. Feinstein and Boxer hear from their supporters every day. It's up to us to show Sens. Feinstein and Boxer that a majority of Americans don't support discrimination in the Constitution. But we need to speak up now.

If America stands for anything, it stands for equal rights and opportunities for everyone. While we've often struggled to guarantee equality, we've never amended our Constitution to take rights away from people or to codify discrimination.

But Republicans think this is a winning issue for them. As Jack Cafferty said later in that show, "If you can appeal to the hatred, bigotry, or discrimination in some people, you might move them to the polls to vote against that big, bad gay married couple that one day might move in down the street."

Most Americans don't support discrimination or this Amendment. But in the next few hours, we need to make sure Sens. Feinstein and Boxer hear from us.

Sunday, June 04, 2006

Yuck Factor Politics at the Pharmacist's Counter

They Hate Our Freedom. Conservatives, I Mean.

MundiMuster! Don't Shut Down the UN!

[via The United Nations Foundation]
A serious political crisis is unfolding at the United Nations. Differences of opinion about the direction of UN reform and governance are threatening to collide with a rapidly approaching spending cap. Unresolved, these differences could paralyze the UN –- paralyze diplomacy, paralyze operations, and paralyze the reform process. Some UN operations could even be curtailed or shut down.

You can help —- and it’ll only take a minute. A new campaign called Resolve the Crisis: Don’t Shut Down the UN is urging world leaders to resolve the crisis, so the UN can continue its life-saving work for security, development, and humanitarian relief. The campaign is sponsored by the Better World Campaign, a project of our sister organization, the Better World Fund.

Will you take a moment to let world leaders know you care? To learn more and sign the petition, visit www.dontshutdowntheun.org.

Thanks for your time and interest. With your help, we can let world leaders know that we need the UN —- and that we need them to work together to make sure the UN can work for us all.

Today's Random Wilde

I am not young enough to know everything.

Saturday, June 03, 2006

P2P: It's About Now, Not Mao

Here is a comment I posted, more or less on impulse, to something I read on Huffington Post this evening by John Brockman, quoting a hero of mine, Jeron Lanier. I mention that I replied on impulse, since I really think I was responding more to the language of Brockman himself rather than the ideas of Lanier that were presumably under discussion.

Brockman's post, entitled "The Hazards of the New Online Collectivism," was quite, er, provocative, and here are some highlights: "The hive mind is for the most part stupid and boring. Why pay attention to it?"

What Brockman is calling "the hive mind" here, and "online collectivism" elsewhere is the emerging peer-to-peer democratization of culture and politics facilitated by digital networked media and social software. "The problem," he writes, for example, "in the way the Wikipedia has come to be regarded and used [is] how it's been elevated to such importance so quickly." There is indeed in Lanier's essay a sensible but by now quite familiar discussion about how factually authoritative disputative collaborative research and policy-making tools can be, and under what conditions, and how we can make them better, and how we can best benefit from them. But that rather modest topic hardly justifies the flame-throwing eagerness of Brockman's language, however.

He continues: "And that is part of the larger pattern of the appeal of a new online collectivism that is nothing less" -- and more to the point, one suspects for Brockman, nothing more -- "than a resurgence of the idea that the collective is all-wise[.]" I for one would be very interested to discover anyone at all who argues that peer-to-peer knowledge aggregation, testing, critique, formulation, editing is all-wise, rather than, say, good-enough to call into question the so-called indispensability of current costly elite-sponsored alternatives that existed hitherto, and also attractively open to collaborative self-improvement in ways that these costly elite-sponsored alternatives may not be.

Further, Brockman proposes that the "new collectivism" of peer-to-peer entails the view "that it is desirable to have influence concentrated in a bottleneck that can channel the collective with the most verity and force." One need only recall that the vanishingly cheap and instantaneous global publication, editing, and circulation of creative content by individuals faciliated by digital networks is a challenge precisely to the immemorial bottleneck of expensive unweildy elite-owned printing presses and studios and broadcast networks to grasp what an extraordinary inversion Brockman seems to be driving at here.

"This is different from representative democracy, or meritocracy," Brockman intones, wringing his hands. Now, I'm trying to restrain my suspicion that "representative democracy" here, as it has come to be practiced here in America, is an ideal too little concerned about, for example, just how many congressional multimillionaires currently claim to "represent" the interests of citizens who are overwhelmingly not multimillionaires. I'm trying likewise to restrain my suspicion that "meritocracy," means here, as it so often does, that prvileged people deserve their privileges and everybody else deserves their lot no less, however utterly interdependent we all really are in fact.

I'm trying to restrain these suspicions, but that first sentence of his keeps resonating in my brain: "The hive mind is for the most part stupid and boring. Why pay attention to it?" What kind of democracy, what kind of meritocracy does that sound like to you?

"This idea," by which Brockman means the dire and drear "collectivism" he descries in peer-to-peer, "has had dreadful consequences when thrust upon us from the extreme Right" -- heck, he knows what the meat and potatoes need to be when one is posting to a lefty blog like Huffington Post... but then here comes the gravy -- "or the extreme Left [emphasis added] in various historical periods." "Extreme left" wikipedian blogospherical peer-to-peer movements, eh? My, now that certainly sounds ominous...

And so, it was to this rhetoric that I replied in my own comment on HuffPo. Here is what I actually wrote:
Communities are more intelligent than individuals are, although diverse and self-critical communities are by far the most intelligent of all.

Democracy always looks scary to aristocracies nervous about the likely loss of their unearned privileges. Peer-to-peer collaboration in matters of creating, publishing, and editing online content (wikis and websites), achieving warranted scientific descriptions (consensus science), keeping authorities accountable (blogracking, real democratic journalism), invigorating critical culture (the blogosphere and the eclipse of broadcast media models), deliberating about public policy and global development (online juries, position papers, fora, organizing, petitions, small-donor aggregation), and for exchanging goods, favors, gifts, and services is much more a matter of using technology to deepen democracy than it is about enforcing some kind of conformism or raising some silly twentieth century collectivist bugbear from history's dustbin.

Jeron Lanier (whose work and thinking I really admire, actually) is right to highlight hazards to better ensure that the emerging peer-to-peer culture lives up to its promise rather than getting mulched into the usual accommodation with corporate-militarism that has dashed our democratic hopes time and time again. But certainly there is no reason for pre-emptive despair to derange or distract us from what is truly hopeful in this moment.

We have the power. Let's see what we can do with it.

When I went on to read Lanier's piece more carefully later I came to decide that he is making some valuable points that are not necessarily well-captured in Brockman's citation of them.

Lanier writes: "A core belief of the wiki world is that whatever problems exist in the wiki will be incrementally corrected as the process unfolds. This is analogous to the claims of Hyper-Libertarians who put infinite faith in a free market, or the Hyper-Lefties who are somehow able to sit through consensus decision-making processes." I have written about pernicious complementarities between the rhetoric and culture of "spontaneous order" as it expresses itself sometimes from the Right, sometimes from the Left, and I see Lanier's argument (whatever my disagreements with some of its specificities and thrust) as a useful one in this vein. Frankly, I believe that notionally left-leaning technophiliac arguments appealing to the rhetoric of "spontaneous order" are not so much analogous to market libertarian arguments but straightforward expressions of precisely the same falsifying "naturalist" ideology. For more, again, check out my essay, Trouble in Libertopia. Be that as it may, returning to Lanier's claim about the "faith" some of us have may have in peer-to-peer processes of knowledge production, it seems to me that there is all the difference in the world between those who would argue

[one] that problems and inaccuracies in knowledge-production are inevitable whatever media architectures articulate them, but that peer-to-peer processes are the best most efficacious and most appropriate practices to address such difficulties in societies that are commited to democracy; as against those who would argue

[two] that peer-to-peer architectures are a technofix bypassing the intractible and interminable quandaries of stakeholder politics by connecting up in some deep way to the structure of the "natural order" itself thereby rendering the arrival at optimal solutions or final factually true descriptions "inevitable."

It's hard to believe that anybody on earth would take up the kind of facile moonshine expressed in [two] but I think we can probably take Lanier's word for it when he claims "we are witnessing today is the alarming rise of the fallacy of the infallible collective. Numerous elite organizations have been swept off their feet by the idea." He goes on to say: "They are inspired by the rise of the Wikipedia, by the wealth of Google, and by the rush of entrepreneurs to be the most Meta. Government agencies, top corporate planning departments, and major universities have all gotten the bug." To this one must add that elite organizations may be inspired by any number of things, and may see what they want to see in any number of developments, especially when what they want most is reassurance that they will maintain and consolidate their privileges in the midst of disruptive technodevelopmental churn. But this scarcely means that they are seeing things clearly.

Needless to say, Lanier is right when he reminds us that "[h]istory has shown us again and again that a hive mind is a cruel idiot when it runs on autopilot. Nasty hive mind outbursts have been flavored Maoist, Fascist, and religious, and these are only a small sampling. I don't see why there couldn't be future social disasters that appear suddenly under the cover of technological utopianism." It seems to me that history has comparable lessons to teach when it comes to cruel and idiotic self-appointed elites and aristocrats and authoritarians -- and, one suspects, some of the very stories he may be locating in the "misbehaving hive-minds" genre might be located with equal justice in the "misbehaving elites" genre as well.

He continues: "If wikis are to gain any more influence they ought to be improved by mechanisms like the ones that have worked tolerably well in the pre-Internet world." By these, he means the role of public reputation in credible peer-review, the introduction of institutional fixes like time-based restrictions on editorial publication at times of conspicuous disputation, and the like. I have no doubt that advocates of peer-to-peer will be among the first, not the last, to embrace such discussions and suggestions as useful ones.

"The illusion that what we already have is close to good enough, or that it is alive and will fix itself, is the most dangerous illusion of all," Lanier concludes. With all due respect, it seems to me that few but the usual suspects from the era of irrationally exuberant extropian libertopian technophiliac digirati are really saying things like this these days among the more sensible progressives excited by peer-to-peer (like Yochai Benkler, James Boyle, Lawrence Lessig, Michel Bauwens). "By avoiding that nonsense," writes Lanier, "it ought to be possible to find a humanistic and practical way to maximize value of the collective on the Web without turning ourselves into idiots. The best guiding principle is to always cherish individuals first." I think this is a useful and deeply attractive recommendation. But where matters of "avoiding nonsense" to the contrary of Lanier's reasonable recommendation are concerned, one wonders if part of the problem may be mistaking an old-school digirati discursive space like Edge.org in the first place for the world now.

And by way of conclusion here, let me say an additional word or two about the "Brights," free-marketeers, evolutionary psychologists, and memeticists who gather in the "Third Culture" salon of Edge.org, under the inspiration, provocation, and guidance of John Brockman.

I sometimes talk here about the awkward and unproductive distrust and even outright incomprehension that sometimes seems to prevail between traditional technoscientific and traditional humanistic or literary cultures. This is a difficulty exacerbated to the point of crisis in late modernity, due to the opportunistic restlessness of global capitalism having its way with traditional discourses and cultures and due as well to the ferocious premium that has come to freight the real accomplishments and hyperbolic imagination of technoscientific practice. This is a problem perhaps most famously discussed in Snow's "Two Cultures" essay.

Well, it seems to me that John Brockman thinks this clash of North Atlantic intellectual cultures is somehow "reconciled" by the creation of what he calls a “Third Culture” which I'm afraid consists pretty much of truly interesting and often quite important figures on the technoscientific side of the traditional culture divide (including heroes of mine like Freeman Dyson, Jeron Lanier, Lynn Margulis, and Bruce Sterling) who declare a kind of pre-emptive victory over the humanities side by indulging in what too often amounts to dilettantish speculation over the key problems of this tradition without paying much attention to what is being said at the moment by most of the truly interesting and often quite important figures actually making their home in the traditional humanities today, literary, critical, or cultural theorists, or even science and technology studies folks who certainly should be included in any honest attempt at such a conversation about science of all things.

Indeed, I suspect that the “Third Culture” would gleefully dismiss most of this work in the “humanities” (scare quoted here because here in the humanities we have grown quite suspicious, don’t you know, of the parochial elitism that has often sought to speak in the name of all humanity to the benefit of at best a lucky few human beings) as “fashionable nonsense,” “pomo relativism,” effete aestheticized “English Department radicalism,” wink wink nudge nudge, and the like.

In other words, the “Third Culture” re-enacts the usual gesture diagnosed in the “Two Cultures” argument, but with the novel twist that this time around at least one side is so breathtakingly oblivious to their parochialism that they express this parochialism as a grand overcoming of parochialism. All the while, here on the humanities side we just roll our eyes with knowing desolation and howl at the moon as our budgets get slashed again and again to better fund the hard-science he-man bomb-builders and statisticians, so I guess justice is served (Stangers With Candy joke, don’t ask).

It is my hope that the radical democratization of politics peer-to-peer will dislodge and transform the disastrously skewed priorities of societies too resopnsive for now to the kind of corporate-militarism that supports the position of established elites. Meanwhile, I hope the re-imagination of human creativity and expressivity peer-to-peer will open spaces for a fuller flowering of literary and critical culture that will no longer be contemplated primarily from the perspective of such threatened and precarious elites and hence will no longer be forever construed as a menace to the technoscientific practices on which these elites have parasitically depended hitherto for much of their power.

Thursday, June 01, 2006

MundiMuster! Vote for Peace Pledge

[via Code Pink] "The intrepid Molly Ivins recently wrote that she was fed up with 'every calculating, equivocating, triangulating, straddling, hair-splitting son of a bitch' in Washington DC. 'This is not a time for a candidate who will offend no one,' Molly proclaimed. 'It is time for a candidate who takes clear stands and kicks ass.'

"This stand was cogently articulated in an editorial in The Nation calling for an end to the war in Iraq. It noted that the war has become the single greatest threat to our national security; that its human and economic costs are spiraling out of control; and that the majority of Americans want to see an end to the war.

"But since the war continues to receive bipartisan support, The Nation took the following stand: 'We will not support any candidate for national office who does not make a speedy end to the war in Iraq a major issue of his or her campaign. We urge all voters to join us in adopting this position.'

"Well, now you can. Thanks to a coalition of groups determined to make peace a major issue in the November 2006 and 2008 races, you can join other outraged voters by signing the Voters for Peace Pledge:
I will not vote for or support any candidate for Congress or President who does not make a speedy end to the war in Iraq, and preventing any future war of aggression, a public position in his or her campaign.

"Please sign now and encourage at least 10 of your friends, relatives, coworkers and neighbors to join. Our goal is to get millions of voters on board so that peace becomes a powerful political demand that politicians cannot continue to ignore.

"Here's to taking a clear stand against war and kicking ass (peacefully),
Allison, Dana, Farida, Gael, Jodie, Katie, Medea, Nancy, Rae, Samantha and Tiffany"