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

Friday, November 23, 2007

Collective Technodevelopmental Determination

This post is upgraded and adapted from the MundiMoot connected with a piece posted over a month ago now which culminated in the following exchange:
Michael Anissimov wrote:

Most of the American public doesn't even know what the word "nanotechnology" means.

I responded:

This doesn't seem particularly tragic to me, I must say. I think people are likely to know quite well what nanotechnology means when "it" impacts their daily lives at all; that is to say, when and if they need to. You think they need to know it now, no doubt, but I think you are probably quite wrong to think that. I also think you may well be wrong to think you know now what "nanotechnology" will mean then, when and if it does matter to them to know it. That remains to be seen.

In his contribution to the Moot Jonathan Pfeiffer worries:
This last paragraph could be understood (or misunderstood) as a claim against the importance of public education on emerging technologies and their potential or likely impacts.

Now, I think that this misunderstanding is unlikely given the context of the post in which that comment appears: I argued in that post that idealized nonproximate Superlative outcomes are mistaken by Michael as too much "predetermined" in advance when the truth is that technodevelopmental determination is an ongoing, collective, and finally unpredictable, if open, process; that is to say, a matter of politics.

If nanoscale technique inscribes one among many different technodevelopmental paths in two decades' time it could end up meaning something much more like what people think of now when they think of "biotechnology" rather than what people think of now (those few that do) when they think of, say, "Drextech." It may well be that people won't and will never have needed to know what the word "nanotechnology" connoted for a small coterie of tech-enthusiasts. People in general might well end up using words like "medicine" instead, or "sensors," or even "fabbing," maybe -- if another futurological paradigm pans out -- and what they will mean by these things will have come over the years of that development to contain the sense of nanoscale technique.

Notice even the difference between conjuring up "nanoscale technique" -- intervention, manipulation at the nanoscale, open to any number of implementations, paradigms of manufacturing, and levels of eventual control -- as against the conjuring up in the first place of a "nanotechnology" whose characteristics we are prone to delineate in advance, as though scribbling them directly from the book of physics or logic, indifferent to the shaping of developmental outcomes and ongoing distribution by factors that are radically underdetermined by logic or physics and instead always retrospectively narrated in history.

This isn't a claim against the importance of public education: again, some context would obviously rule out such a misunderstanding in a flash -- inasmuch as I regularly champion public education here on the blog, and have, more to the point, literally devoted my life to public education as a teacher!

Rather than a claim against such education it is better to read it as an insistence that educating a properly open, critical, and literate technodevelopmental temper will involve much more than logic and physics. And certainly it should involve sensitivity training to the pseudo-science, self-delusion, reductionism, and hyperbole with which some techno-enthusiasts will try to peddle their own pet Superlative outcomes and impose their pet or elite-incumbent agendas in the name of "foresight."

(To be very clear for any Superlative technocentrics reading this: That scare-quoting of the word "foresight" isn't an expression of skepticism or opposition to the notion of foresight as such so much as it is an expression of skepticism and opposition to huckster hype and tribal indoctrination mistaken or peddled as foresight, which, in my view, functions to derail the actually obviously useful process that foresight is.)
Jonathan's intervention continues: Is it that "the people" or "the American public" needs to be considered as much a source of education as a target for it? What were you thinking here?

Don't scarequote the people or the American public! We really do exist. It's true that we are a plurality rather than a monolithic unanimity invested with some kind of sovereign will -- but that is, after all, just a facile straw man constructed by incumbent and elite interests to denigrate the actually ongoing contestation, deliberation, participation of that popular plurality in the articulation of history which incumbents and elitists would rather control to their particular advantage.

Obviously the people are as much a source as a target for education! The Street finds its own uses for things. Aborning peer production practices are palpably shattering industrial-broadcast prejudices everywhere. The "Unitary Executive" is shitting in his pants and firing off wild shots in a last ditch panic.

Be careful, by the way, what groove your rhetoric is apt to nudge you into if you aren't vigilant: the people "considering" the people are themselves among the people, and so your example isn't in any measure properly a matter of elite technocrats assuming a vantage from which to consult, say, now the Book of the Universe's Law with their logical asocial independent brains, and now, with the same asocial indifference, the news arriving from ground level from the clamoring multitude, and on the basis of such consultations make the calculation that will enable them to implement some Superlative eidos into a technodevelopmental outcome.

Technodevelopmental determination is itself actively and interminably ongoing and collective, not reductively logical nor teleological, nor implemented unilaterally from above. That is the key thing to be understood here. Education, expertise, foresight, organizing are tiles in a technodevelopmental mosaic, but none of that trumps the actual collectivity of ongoing technodevelopmental determination and open futurity.

14 comments:

Jonathan Pfeiffer said...

Dale,

I have intervened with the awkwardness of someone walking into, by way of a time machine, the middle of a conversation. I'm sorry if you thought I seriously doubted your interest in, or commitment to, education. I thought my question might be rhetorically effective given the obviousness of your interest.

Setting aside Mr. Anissimov's original motive for the moment, what difference does it make to note some absence of public awareness of the word "nanotechnology"? This could serve to lament the fact that a lot of people have yet to experience a Drexlerian epiphany while rubbing shoulders with fellow tech enthusiasts; it could just as easily serve to lament the fact that a lot of people will be intellectually disadvantaged when it comes time to influence public decisions concerning nanoscale technologies that (will) affect them.

Ideally, the public and the people, including the technodreamers and the engineers, would deliberate in permeable and transparent ways that don't distinguish between teachers and students, between sources and targets of education. I do look forward to a time when the diversity of us will join together and sing Kum Ba Nano Ya.

At the same time, there's a darker side that I don't yet know how to avoid:

What if the jargons used in scientific literature exacerbate the educational problem? Then there will need to be communication from the nano-knowers and nano-doers to the as-yet nano-ignorant, even as uni-directional and elitist as the process may appear. I hope with all my heart that the educators will respect the intelligences and creativities of the learners, and not try to exploit them. The point is to minimize the intellectual, and therefore political, divide -- not to worsen it.

Now, if I'm reading you right, you seem to think that public education specifically on nanoscale technoscience is premature for the time being. This claim does not seem unreasonable, given the lack even of well-defined disciplinarity: Last time I checked, the nanotube designers and nanomachinists were still hotly debating elementary questions of concept and method. Does this mean that now is too early to tell how nanotech may affect people, medicinally or however? Does that mean the educational project is not ready to begin?

I'm only trying to provoke you to correct a genuine lack of understanding in my mind of what you're saying. Help me, master, for truly, I share not your insight.

n8o said...

That would depend upon how closely your concept of "public education" is to "public indoctrination".

"Educating" the public about potential or likely impacts of not-yet-arrived technologies is an easy way to pre-set their expectations in ways that are favorable to the agendas of those sponsoring such "education" without having to address to the pesky need to provide actually-existing, reliable, and verifiable facts.

Given the specific example of nanotechnology, it's not so much that people don't know what the term means because they haven't been educated so much as that they are exposed to it from numerous sources, many of whom intentionally use different definitions in support of their particular agendas.

In my interactions with CRN, I've become much more familiar with most of the definitions of "nanotechnology" being used, along with the motives that inspire them. Frankly, all that familiarity makes me LESS certain about what the term means, not more.

Nick Tarleton said...

I think people are likely to know quite well what nanotechnology means when "it" impacts their daily lives at all; that is to say, when and if they need to.

Do you think it's good that people be aware of a technology (or technique) before it impacts their daily lives - you know, planning and all that?

Do you think people are currently sufficiently aware of the politics of technologies that do impact their daily lives - net neutrality, for instance, or DRM?

Dale Carrico said...

Jonathan -- don't get me wrong, I thought your initial intervention was a useful one. I was happy to use it to reformulate things more clearly. Believe me, I wasn't attributing malign motives to you at all!

I don't think it's entirely premature to talk about things happening at the nanoscale in the least. But that doesn't have much to do with Superlative Nanotechnological Discourses, I'm afraid.

n8o -- "[N]anotechnology, it's not so much that people don't know what the term means because they haven't been educated... as that they are exposed to... different definitions in support of... particular agendas.... I've become much more familiar with most of the definitions of "nanotechnology" being used, along with the motives that inspire them. Frankly, all that familiarity makes me LESS certain about what the term means, not more."

No comment about this yet, except: Very interesting. I'm mulching that but into my compost bin to see what soil comes out.

Nick -- Do you think it's good that people be aware of a technology (or technique) before it impacts their daily lives - you know, planning and all that?

Do you think people are currently sufficiently aware of the politics of technologies that do impact their daily lives -- net neutrality, for instance, or DRM?


Your second point first: I am much more interested in educating and framing and organizing around Net Neutrality, DRM, fair use, Tripps, media consolidation, and a host of comparably concrete issues concerning climate change, pollution/waste, energy/water descent, etc, than I am in the so-called "politics" of Bainbridge's transcendental NBIC convergence or Joy's GNR killjoys. That is where there is work to be done.

But what I would like to express more clearly than I have managed yet to do, I think, is my sense that this focus on proximate technodevelopmental social struggle is not mired in the present as compared to Superlative futurology (as superlative technocentrics no doubt facy is the case), but contains the material of foresight itself.

The present is the emergency out of which futurities are emerging. The more responsive we are to the diversity of aspirations of stakeholders to present technodevelopmental social struggle the more real foresight finds its way into our deliberation. People have knowledges to communicate, to bring to deliberation, and among these people are the ones we now think of as the "experts" but not only these.

Too often "foresight" and "futurism" means incumbent elites controlling change in the service of their parochial interests -- and to the extent that this is true it is precisely these professional knowers and technocrats who find in futurity a mirror of the present desires and dreads. To be anti-democratic is always to risk retro-futurism.

In refusing superlativity I am accused of a failure of imagination and a closing down of horizons, but I must say that it seems to me that democratizing technodevelopmental social struggle here and now is an opening of the future, is an embrace of the real pleasures and dangers of imagination (not the piss poor funhouse mirrors the technophiles crow about), is an enrichment of the creative and critical resources of which any foresight worth having must actually consist.

So, as to your first point, as I already explicitly indicated in the piece itself, of course I agree with you that foresight, and planning are indispensable to technodevelopmental social struggle. But have a care about what some hucksters are peddling in the name of "foresight"!

Best to you all, d

Nick Tarleton said...

Thanks.

On the second question: my point was that it seems that people are not currently as aware as they should be about even present techno-political issues like those you named. Your confidence that people will be appropriately informed about nanotech once it is more relevant thus seems misplaced.

On the first: if foresight and planning are important, it seems very right to think that people do need to know about nanotechnology now. What am I missing?

AnneC said...

There's certainly nothing stopping people who know stuff about nanotechnology from informing others. What's the dispute here, if there is one?

Dale Carrico said...

[P]eople are not currently as aware as they should be about even present techno-political issues like those you named.

Which people? Different people are differently informed. There isn't just one kind of thing to know, and there is no one in a position to know all the things worth knowing. Informed in what respects? There are things people who imagine themselves expert in current technology don't know that people who aren't so considered do know. That's part of what I'm pointing out. Hell, part of what we don't know we can't know, because they haven't been collectively articulated as yet. I'm not not just talking about invention here, but appropriation, narration, etc.

Your confidence that people will be appropriately informed about nanotech once it is more relevant thus seems misplaced.

People in their diversity are knowledgeable, educable, and when free are capable of finding their way to better fairer outcomes than parochial self-appointed elites can do. You're right, I am confident of this. In fact it's as close to a faith as this crusty atheist ever gets.

Of course, there are some things some people know better than others that are well worth knowing by all -- but I think the sorts of people with these knowledges are considerably more diverse than is widely credited, and I think people in general are more educable in their grasp of such key knowledges for another thing and in any case better capable of managing them (through accountable representatives and professional appointments and the apparatus of regulation) than is widely credited also.

Maybe we are talking past one another: what I am emphasizing, as always, is that technoprogressive politics is about the democratization of ongoing technodevelopmental social struggle, not about the effort of a parochial minority to implement as best it can a superlative outcome with which it presently identifies.

"[I]f foresight and planning are important, it seems very right to think that people do need to know about nanotechnology now. What am I missing?"

There are many important things to know. Depending on just how particular your pet conception of "nanotechnology" is it may well be an arrant absurdity to claim that considerably more people need to know about it than presently imagine they already do so. If the more capacious notion of nanoscale technique is what you're getting at, then plenty of people have been talking about that all over the place, although possibly not in a vocabulary you particularly care for, when they deliberate on sensor technologies, nanoscale toxicitiy issues, bioengineering, pharmacology, and so on.

I have too many Superlative technocentrics reading this blog to accept on face value that what a person means who drops the term "nanotechnology" here is anything like what I might mean by the term. And I have no illusions at all that anybody can say with justified confidence that what they mean now by "nanotechnology" is what will be meant by that term by actual inhabitants of the futures about which people imagine themselves to be talking when they throw such terms around. In a word: Absurd. Given that absurdity, I have a fairly skeptical and caveated sense of just what "people" need to know now to take up their proper place as peers in ongoing and emerging technodevelopmental deliberation that constitutes the living practice and archive of which foresight actually consists.

Do you see better where I am coming from now? It's not that I think we're having a dispute particularly. I think I just haven't managed yet to communicate very well how far afield from superlative and technocratic technocentricities I actually am when I try to talk about open futurity, deliberative foresight, p2p democracy, and progressive technodevelopmental social struggle. It is in the give and take of these conversations that I find my way to better formulations of these notions -- so, thanks.

Jonathan Pfeiffer said...

Dale said: I don't think it's entirely premature to talk about things happening at the nanoscale in the least. But that doesn't have much to do with Superlative Nanotechnological Discourses, I'm afraid.

Well, that's a good thing, isn't it? I mean, especially if it has lots to do with truly progressive discourses, then we should talk a lot about it, right?

That's a minor point of confusion, though, given the fact that you did elaborate and clarify a lot. Thank you.

Anne said: There's certainly nothing stopping people who know stuff about nanotechnology from informing others. What's the dispute here, if there is one?

A good point. But taking the example of the United States, the National Science Foundation's surveys show a lack of public understanding of some key subjects. Is this bad, and if so, whose fault is it, if anyone's? The Foundation certainly worries a lot about it, and I suppose the fact that so many citizens don't know even the basics of the traditional scientific method feels wrong -- at least on a gut level -- to some of us.

There may be nothing preventing education from happening, but there also doesn't seem to be a lot of making it happen.

Dale Carrico said...

Just to be sure I'm clear, I am a big believer in free livelong education and retraining as a basic right for everyone, and I think a measure of a successful civilization is to gauge how high a proportion of the population is literate, numerate, and has acquired critical thinking skills.

Since the extractive industrial civilization of the North Atlantic seems to be caught up in resource descent together with p2p ascent I suspect that permaculture and media skills should also be taken as pretty basic, though they are not at present. And that's another topic, anyway.

But nothing about a commitment to education, even science education, should give comfort to either technocratic or superlative intuitions. This is the nail that needs hammering, given my audience.

Parochial indoctrination looks like education from the vantage of the True Believer. Education is not just lecturing but listening. Open, democratic technodevelopmental deliberation will always yield unpredictable insights and always respond to a greater diversity of inputs than will be visible from any one vantage.

Those are always the key things to me, the key things I insist technocentrics go back to over and over again.

It's too easy for statements about "the masses' so-called ignorance of nanotechnology" or "strong AI" or "SENS" or what have you to testify to what really amounts to the frustration of the True Believer, the technocrat, or the reductionist that their own parochial perspective has not swept the world.

I am not accusing anybody in this thread of meaning any such thing, but I am warning everybody of the vulnerability of technocentrisms to this sort of attitude and to insist that a properly democratizing education and a properly democratized foresight has little to do with such an attitude at all.

AnneC said...

Dale said:

Parochial indoctrination looks like education from the vantage of the True Believer.

Yup. I've heard/read statements by fundamentalists who homeschool their children to "protect them from the evils of secular education", and it's amazing how seamlessly they incorporate the indoctrination alongside the math and language lessons.

Education is not just lecturing but listening.

This is a really important point.

Open, democratic technodevelopmental deliberation will always yield unpredictable insights and always respond to a greater diversity of inputs than will be visible from any one vantage.

I agree with this, but it might be a good idea to clarify what exactly "open, democratic technodevelopmental deliberation" looks like. Or heck, maybe I can try to do it. I think that too often when statements like this are put forth, they tend to get dismissed by the technocentric folks as "feel-good words". Some of this reaction is probably rooted in a certain degree of elitism, but some of it is probably rooted in a "mere" lack of understanding as to what is being suggested.

It seems to me that when technocentric folks come across statements like, "we need to include more stakeholders in critical discussions, and democratize the relevant discourse", they interpret those statements as calls for "man on the street" polls, or as calls to let everyone in the world (or their representatives) vote on every possible action before they're actually permitted to "do anything".

I believe this to be a strawman characterization, but I can also see how from the technocentric perspective (which I used to be a fair bit closer to than I am now), it can be very difficult to see what, if not that characterization, is meant by the calls for democratic discourse.

Maybe I'll take a crack at coming up with a few concrete scenarios that might help make the nature of this "democratic discourse" clearer to those who seem to be having trouble seeing that suggesting as anything but a call for "more pointless bureaucracy and paperwork".

Jonathan Pfeiffer said...

Dale said: It's too easy for statements about "the masses' so-called ignorance of nanotechnology" or "strong AI" or "SENS" or what have you to testify to what really amounts to the frustration of the True Believer, the technocrat, or the reductionist that their own parochial perspective has not swept the world. / I am not accusing anybody in this thread of meaning any such thing

I and others who have commented in this Moot -- to the extent that I can sense their attitudes -- are quite firmly disinterested, at least in principle, in this particular kind of frustration. Of the characters here with whose temperaments I am somewhat familiar -- Dale, Nato, Anne ("hi, guys") -- frustrations are more likely to be directed against such technocratic or superlative intuitions. (If I have mischaracterized anyone, I will stand corrected.) And if you could save me a spot among you, I would be grateful, though I may be arriving late.

So rather than change the subject, let's talk about technoprogressively motivated education. Many of us, it seems, agree that that's far more interesting, anyway, than parochial indoctrinations. I tried to offer a concrete context for discussion with the National Science Foundation. How about genetic, prosthetic, and cognitive modifications? Longevity medicines? Renewable energies? Agricultural biotechnologies? Water desalination? Restorative geoengineering? Whether it's nanoscale or macroscale, the original question is, Should we be concerned about lack of public understanding? Have there been knowledges generated within scientific communities that ought to be dispersed into the entire public? What roles, if any, might small coteries of tech enthusiasts play in making that happen? What are the best ways of measuring educational success, as the Foundation tries to do with surveys? Should we be particularly worried about whether people recognize certain keywords like, "nanotechnology" or "recombinant DNA"? These questions should not be taken as a denial of the many other important facets of education -- including, but not at all limited to, skills necessary to challenge those same experts, and to express alternative ways of being educated. Whether we like it or not, the experts have power, and inviting other people to speak their languages might be one great way to democratize that power.

Is there something distasteful or stupid about what I am saying? Am I unfairly placing the burden of proof upon people who don't think these questions matter much? If the reasons why these questions might matter are unclear, then perhaps we need to have another kind of discussion.

Dale Carrico said...

Of the characters here with whose temperaments I am somewhat familiar -- Dale, Nato, Anne ("hi, guys") -- frustrations are more likely to be directed against such technocratic or superlative intuitions.

This seems to be so, and a delightful thing it is, too... but one is always communicating to lurkers as well as engaging conversationally with commentators and this complicates the way I try to make my points in these sorts of exchanges. You know how it is.

As for concrete technoprogressive campaigns of education, agitation, organizing... I am interested in scholarships for women and minorities in basic science, offering grants to facilitate peer production and non proprietary publication of research, the politics of harm reduction as against moralizing language to guide policy in matters of stds, reproductive health, needle exchange, drug use, and a host of comparable issues, participating in the politics of consensus science directing policy concerning climate change, pollution, toxicity, drug trials, fighting for evolution against creationism in public schools, struggling for more r & d for renewable energy technologies and permaculture strategies, fighting for women's access to abortion and ARTs, fighting mandated sexual assignments to intersex people and facilitating informed consensual sexual reassignment for transsexual people, fighting for the rights and standing and facilitation of intelligibly consensual differently-enabled lifeways, fighting for stem cell research, making reproductive cloning a safe option (and illegal while unsafe, as it is now), and a host of comparable campaigns.

This is the actual politics of ongoing, emerging technoscientific change. All these green, p2p, a2k, copyfighting, secular, queer, lifeway diversity, medical research struggles and campaigns are already existing and deserve technoprogressive support. The education, agitation, and organizing is already underway.

The education agitation and organizing that will eventuate in best outcomes for emancipatory nanoscale techniques, non-normalizing genetic, prosthetic, and cognitive modification medicine, p2p democracy, and so on will arise from these ongoing struggles among the diversity of stakeholders to technodevelopmental questions of this kind.

Have there been knowledges generated within scientific communities that ought to be dispersed into the entire public?

We must get money out of politics, diminish the power of corporate-militarist lobbying, enact strong conflict of interest standards about the revolving door between industry insiders and regulatory posts concerned with those industries. Fund public education and the technoscientific literacy of popular policy deliberation will rise. Resist incumbent corruption and the technoscientific literacy of popular policy will rise.

I know it's not as sexy as starry-eyed robot talk but these look to me pretty much like problems of incumbent corruption and underfunded education, rather than a problem of figuring out how to frame sub(cult)ural movements to implement superlative outcomes. (I know that's not what you're advocating, I'm pointing out that this is the facile alternative against which I regularly find myself struggling.)

What roles, if any, might small coteries of tech enthusiasts play in making that happen?

Very negligible. But not unworthy for all that, so long as salon enthusiasts appreciate the difference between blue-skying and actual technodevelopmental social struggle. (Once that proviso is accepted, I will cheerfully concede by the way that such blue-skying has indeed and will surely again occasionally bear unexpected and unpredictable fruits for emancipatory technoprogressive politics -- but the point is one cannot confuse one for the other, nor substitute one for the other, nor ever ever count on such a result.)

Should we be particularly worried about whether people recognize certain keywords like, "nanotechnology" or "recombinant DNA"?

In my view, the former, no, the latter, more so. YMMV.

Anonymous said...

Fund public education and the technoscientific literacy of popular policy deliberation will rise.
While it's obviously not what you meant, it's still worthwhile to point out that no amount of cash alone can fix some flaws in current system.

It doesn't mean funding isn't needed, of course. Unsurprisingly having a child is now "the single best predictor" of bankruptcy.,and education system plays a great role in that sad situation, both directly and indirectly. And a bit of thinking shows that school vouchers championed by the authors aren't the solution. What could be one is a much more difficult project of making all the schools better AND fighting against concept of "prestigeous education". There _should_be_no_ such thing, period. Neither in the US, nor anywhere else. There should be good education instead.

Dale Carrico said...

school vouchers... aren't the solution.

and

fighting against concept of "prestigeous education"

Right on.